Lynn O'Shaughnessy

Thirty-seven billion dollars is a nearly unfathomable amount of money. If you counted each dollar bill of that fortune, it would cripple your wrist and consume years of your life.

As most of you know, that's the stunning sum that Warren Buffett recently announced he would be donating to mankind. The money will primarily flow into the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is hellbent on eradicating diseases from Third World countries. Much of the rest will be dispatched to foundations that were created by Buffett's late wife, as well as his children, who have incredibly eclectic interests.

When Warren Buffett divulged that he was going to dedicate most of his wealth to charitable causes, I bet it prompted many people to dream about how they could play Santa Claus if only they had a few billion to scatter like birdseed.

It's not necessary to be worth billions or even millions, however, to make a difference, say, in the lives of autistic children, or adults who can't read a bus schedule.

If you've outgrown writing modest checks for your favorite charities, there are many avenues you can take to connect with causes that you feel most passionate about, whether it's cleaning up the oceans, fighting global warming or providing picture books to your neighborhood library.

You can become a philanthropist by creating a donor-advised fund.

These funds, which look and feel like minifoundations, are revolutionizing the world of philanthropy. If you've got at least $5,000 to $10,000 to get started, you can launch a fund that's dedicated to the causes dearest to you. Once your money is sitting in a donor-advised fund, a portion of it can be distributed each year to any charity.

You may rightfully be wondering why you need a donor-advised fund when you can write a fat check directly to the American Heart Association, the Audubon Society or your alma mater.

The beauty of one of these funds, however, is that it provides you with an entree to a professional philanthropic staff, which can help you pinpoint the ideal place for your donations. Doing good works through a donor-advised fund can also be far more rewarding than writing a check because you can become more involved, if you choose, in the cause you are supporting. You can also get your children or grandchildren involved.

The best way to create a donor-advised fund is through a community foundation. Across the country, there are more than 700 of these foundations, from the largest, the New York Community Trust, followed by the Cleveland Foundation, to tiny ones in places like Mifflinburg, Pa., and Scott City, Kan.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of Retirement Bible.

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