If you're like me, you've probably gotten out your checkbook and given money to the relief effort for victims of the recent hurricanes that devastated the Gulf Coast. Perhaps you did the same when the killer tsunami struck the nations bordering the Indian Ocean. Maybe you gave to a very large international organization like the Red Cross and you feel that you've done your charitable duty for the year.

So why give to The Motley Fool's annual charity drive? What distinguishes Foolanthropy from the countless other online venues for charity you could give to during the holiday season? Three reasons top the list: (1) The opportunity to take part in nominating the charities that will benefit, and to raise awareness about them; (2) Foolanthropy's reputation as the longest-standing Internet charity drive; and (3) our commitment to "small-cap" charities that might otherwise lose out on funding.

With the kickoff of The Motley Fool's ninth annual Foolanthropy campaign, I thought it might be helpful to explore the current climate of corporate philanthropy to put the Fool's annual drive into context.

Every new advance in technology makes the world smaller. Socioeconomic differences are more glaringly evident than ever now that people around the globe -- rich and poor, third and first world, all races and classes -- can communicate with heretofore unknown ease. Maybe this makes it harder to accept the gap between rich and poor that seems to be widening, not closing, even in our own wealthy country as the global economy shifts.

And with all the gains (and, unfortunately, losses) from agri-biotech, biomedical, nanotech, and industrial advances constantly being announced in earnings reports and then interpreted at the Fool, it seems that political and social change isn't moving at the same pace as technology. So what happens to those who fall between the cracks?

Philanthropy is certainly not a new undertaking for those who can't really go much further in business and have decided to turn their attention to remedying social, instead of corporate, problems. It's been going on in various forms for centuries. Still, it does seem that in recent years, more and more corporations are increasingly picking up some of the slack.

A recent example is Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), along with Office Depot (NYSE:ODP) and General Electric (NYSE:GE), stepping in to donate many, many millions of dollars immediately after hurricanes Katrina and Rita when the government was having, shall we say, trouble getting motivated. In fact, according to CNNMoney, corporate donations to help victims of the recent hurricanes are at more than $400 million and could eventually exceed $1 billion.

Other famous examples of corporations, or the fabulously wealthy people behind them, founding philanthropic arms are the private Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Alcoa's (NYSE:AA) Alcoa Foundation, which tops the list of corporate foundations. And what aspiring poet could forget pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly's staggering $100 million donation to Poetry magazine in 2002, which then-editor Joe Parisi said could single-handedly change the face of American poetry?

There's even a Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy. Membership includes more than 100 CEOs and chairpersons representing some very influential companies accounting for about 45% of reported corporate giving.

The most recent big splash on the corporate philanthropic scene took place on Oct. 11, when Google outlined new details for its program of giving, partnerships, and investments called Google.org. The problems the new dot-org will focus on are global poverty, energy, and the environment. The company will fund the project with 1% of its stock and 1% of its annual profits.

Co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have very big plans for the program, which was initially announced last year. "We hope that someday this institution will eclipse Google itself in overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the largest of the world's problems," they wrote in the company's annual report.

Google's focus "on using [its] money and [its] energy to find and help found sustainable projects that will help provide ongoing answers," as Sheryl Sandberg, vice president of global online sales and operations, told TheWall Street Journal, echoes Foolanthropy's bias toward "reaching a sustainable solution rather than a quick fix."

Within this environment of massive corporate giving, where does Foolanthropy fit in?

From the early days of the Internet, Fool co-founder David Gardner envisioned The Motley Fool's website as a possible means of raising a significant amount of money and awareness for charity. The nine-year-old Foolanthropy campaign is actually the Internet's longest-standing such project.

And since its inception in 1997, Foolanthropy has always been an all-volunteer grassroots project that calls democratically for nominations from our members and subscribers. We want our members to have an active role throughout the entire process. Our volunteer committee, made up of willing Motley Fool employees, selects those nominations it deems most Foolish and appropriate for the challenges of the year.

Considering Foolanthropy's professed tendency to support "small-cap" charities that may not receive much funding or awareness, but that are nevertheless crucial programs, the big question this year is whether to include hurricane-related charities. Considering that corporate donations for Katrina- and Rita-related relief could exceed $1 billion, wouldn't it be better to support charities unrelated to the catastrophic devastation in the Gulf Coast that may be otherwise neglected this year? Or are there dozens of forgotten charities along the Gulf Coast that are smaller and aren't receiving any of the massive funding coming in?

This is why we value our members' input so much. We live on this planet together, and we want to know what our fellow Fools around the world feel most urgently needs our support.

In its nine years as an online charitable drive, Foolanthropy has benefited varied organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Canine Companions for Independence, Grameen Foundation USA, Heifer International, First Book, the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Foodchain, Polycystic Kidney Research, and Spirit of America. Many are relatively small in size, although some are large and well-established. Some are domestic, and some are international in scope. All offer long-term solutions to problems and sustainable hope for a better future.

Perhaps for-profit companies, with their penchant for, well, profit and sustainable "business" models, will prove to be very good long-term at raising and distributing money for causes traditionally served by nonprofits. But that's a story for another day.

What matters today is the $2,313,934 and counting. If you'd like to cast your vote for a charitable institution, go to our Foolanthropy discussion board and post your nomination. Remember to make a good case for your nomination. Instructions are here. And don't forget to revisit www.foolanthropy.com on Nov. 16, when the list of the five charities we've selected this year is posted.

Donations will be accepted directly through the charities until Jan. 8, 2006. Look for a tally of donations received on a weekly basis throughout the drive, and don't forget to put in your two cents during our "Here's My 2 Cents" campaign throughout December, when the Fool chips in $0.02 for every single post on every single board.

For related Foolanthropic Foolishness, check these out:

Fool editor Carrie Crockett is co-chair of Foolanthropy 2005. Carrie does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. She can be reached at ccrockett@fool.com.