Last summer, Warren Buffett made the largest charitable donation in history. His gift of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-B) stock will ultimately depend on the share price of the stock itself, but most have valued the contribution in the $40 billion range -- give or take a few billion. Not to be flip, but that donation matches the entire market cap of Corning (NYSE:GLW), a Fortune 500 company.

According to The New York Times Magazine, "On an inflation-adjusted basis, Buffett has pledged to give more than double the lifetime total given away by two of the philanthropic giants of the past, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, put together."

A commitment to giving
Part of the beauty of Buffett's generosity stems from the manner in which he's giving it away -- as stock in his beloved Berkshire Hathaway. He is, quite literally, tying the performance of his investments to his charity.

In that respect, he's a microcosm of Americans. According to a recent report from the Giving USA Foundation, in 2006, Americans donated $295 billion to charities -- a slight but impressive increase over 2005, which saw more than its share of (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime disasters. (Back out the natural-disaster donations, and 2006 giving was up 3.2%.) Giving USA stats show that the United States ranks first worldwide in philanthropy, at 1.7% of GDP. (The United Kingdom is No. 2, at 0.73%.)

Back to investing
Seventy-five percent of that total came from the checkbooks of individuals. And perhaps the most interesting finding from the report:

Giving historically tracks the health of the overall economy, with the rise amounting to about one-third the rise in the stock market, according to Giving USA. Last year was right on target, with a 3.2% rise as stocks rose more than 10% on an inflation-adjusted basis.

Now, we know that nearly 57 million households in this country -- roughly half of all households -- own stocks directly or through funds. And 2006 was kind to most of these investors. Major indices surged. SPDRs (AMEX:SPY), the S&P 500 proxy, gained 16%. The Dow-tracking Diamonds (AMEX:DIA) rose 19%, while the small-cap-laden iShares Russell 2000 (AMEX:IWM) returned 18%.

So, following Buffett's lead, when Americans do well in the market, they also do well by their favorite charities. We applaud that commitment to giving.

With international markets on the tear they've been on -- outpacing the U.S. indices by leaps and bounds of late -- perhaps American investors have fared even better investing overseas. And perhaps it's time to look abroad to repay the favor.

An idea that can spread
As our colleague Bill Mann, advisor of Motley Fool Global Gains,has said, "We've found a way to help give back some of what we get from the global community to those most in need of our help." Unfortunately, there's such a range of problems and people desperately in need today that it's hard to know where to begin.

That's why PlayPumps International jumped off the page as a charitable partner for Motley Fool Global Gains. PlayPumps offers an inventive, resourceful, simple solution to a problem of devastating global proportion: access to clean water. Did you know that a billion people worldwide don't have access to clean water, or that every 15 seconds a child dies from diseases related to unsafe water, or that women and girls around the world carry as much as 40 pounds of water an average of 5 miles, every day, to provide their families with water that may or may not be safe to drink?

In a nutshell, PlayPumps provides clean water to thousands of people in sub-Saharan Africa by the ingenious use of water pumps powered by children's play on a merry-go-round. The tanks storing the water that the children pump also sport advertisements that help pay for the pump, making this a very Foolish charitable investment. But Global Gains isn't alone in supporting PlayPumps in its campaign to raise funds for 100 pumps in 100 days. With such a successful, self-sustaining model, the organization has some other very prominent sponsors in JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) and Unilever (NYSE:UL).

In the end (the campaign wrapped June 29), Fools raised $42,000. At $14,000 a pump, that's three pumps, two of which have already been installed, and are up and running, in Mozambique. But just because the campaign is over doesn't mean you can't give. PlayPumps has a long-term goal of bringing pumps and fresh water to several more countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa in the next few years.

If the market has been kind to you, please consider sharing the wealth with the gift of that most basic of resources -- water.

Neither Brian Richards nor Carrie Crockett owns shares of any company mentioned. Berkshire Hathaway is both an Inside Value and Stock Advisor recommendation. JPMorgan Chase and Unilever are Income Investor recommendations. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.