In March 1994, champion Formula One race car driver Aryton Senna told his sister Viviane that he wanted to help his country but didn't know how. They swaped ideas and promised to talk again after he returned from races in Europe.

They never got the chance.

A crash killed the charismatic Senna, leaving Viviane and the rest of the family to bring his dream to life. Instead of writing a large check to a trusted charity, they chose several years later to create a philanthropic organization--a method of social action that has blossomed in Brazil this decade.

Today the Aryton Senna Institute, focusing on children's issues, is one of the fastest-growing philanthropies in Brazil. Its programs budget has grown nearly seven-fold in five years, and its work affects some 180,000 children and teenagers across the country.

The emergence of philanthropies here reveals a new belief that "everybody should feel responsible for society's ills," said Viviane Senna, president of the organization.

The philanthropy movement in Brazil reflects a shift not just in Latin America's most populous nation, but throughout the developing world. The spread of democracy, the ever-shrinking role of government and a growing sense of citizenship among people and corporations have stoked foundation- building and volunteerism in nations that have long left such matters to churches and foreign organizations.

A number of countries--including Mexico, India and several former Soviet republics--are clarifying and creating laws and offering tax incentives that will more easily accommodate philanthropies and other nonprofits. In others, such as South Africa, prominent social and business leaders are taking the lead from international foundations and multinational corporations. And in others, such as Brazil, organizations aimed at shoring up accountability of home-grown foundations are repairing the battered images of their nations' philanthropies.

Statistics are difficult to come by, but the Center for the Study of Philanthropy in New York says that the number of philanthropies--and the amount of money each group spends--appears to be growing at unprecedented levels in developing countries.

Earlier this year, a conference held in Brazil to promote social responsibility among corporations lured more than 400 participants from 18 Latin American nations. "That wouldn't have happened 10 years ago," said Oded Grajew, president of the Sao Paulo-based Ethos Institute, the two-year-old group that organized the event.

The growth of philanthropies "reflects a real shift in the structure of society," said Eugene Miller, the center's assistant director. "Government has become less important. Those groups that exist between government and business and family really have to shoulder burdens that used to be carried out by government."

Today in Brazil, there are at least 100 philanthropies compared with perhaps 40 during the early 1990s, according to the Group of Foundations, Institutes and Enterprises, an independent umbrella group comprised of Brazil's 45 largest foundations, including several U.S.-based organizations.

GIFE, as it is known, reports that its members donated the equivalent of $300 million in 1997; that figure rose to $400 million last year. (Its international members contributed roughly 5 percent of the 1998 figure.)

The growth of foundations has provided a critical new weapon for this sprawling country of 167 million people, which struggles with a plethora of social ills--from wretched public education to environmental degradation to domestic violence.

Corporate philanthropy in particular signals a new and much-needed sense of citizenship among Brazilians, said anthropologist Leilah Landim, who has studied the growth of civil society in Brazil.

"Corporations here historically haven't mixed with social problems," Landim said. Now, she said, they have "a sense that they have a role to play in society, and not just in the market."

The Aryton Senna Institute's extraordinary growth has come in part because several major Brazilian corporations now help support it. Five years ago, it spent the equivalent of $918,500 on programs; this year that total will be $6.5 million.

The institute has worked especially hard in public education. Two years ago, it launched a program to help improve the rate at which students are promoted between grades in Brazil, where 96 percent of students repeated at least one grade before finishing secondary school. In 1997, the program's first year, all 25,000 participating students made it to the next grade, and 84 percent jumped two or three levels.

And the vast majority of those students matched or surpassed their states' averages on government tests.

"So they weren't just passing on to the next level," Viviane Senna, 41, said of the test results. "They were learning."

Senna, who weeps when she speaks of her brother, is quick to point out that the accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers LLP has substantiated the institute's numbers. The firm regularly audits the institute and its programs.

In years past, lack of accountability here spawned rampant abuse of foundation funds. Scandals smothered public enthusiasm for philanthropy, and the word itself became so tainted that foundations still avoid it. Instead, they use phrases such as "social responsibility" and "social investment."

GIFE rejects any philanthropy that won't submit to outside auditing. And earlier this year its efforts led Brazil's National Congress to pass broad legislation that for the first time imposes severe penalties, including imprisonment, on philanthropic officials who misuse government funds.

"We're not just talking about social responsibility," said GIFE Chairman Marcos Kisil. "We're talking about social accountability. If you answer to the public, then we have to make everything--where the money comes from, what we do with it--we have to make it all public."

In another sign of the growing spirit of social responsibility in Brazil, top university students and young professionals are moving into the world of nonprofits for the first time, prodding universities and foundations to offer courses and training to prepare them.

They're professionals such as Faezeh Shaikhzadeh Santos, 26. She left her human resources job with Citicorp last year to work for a philanthropy-backed organization that supports children with kidney disease.

Santos said this kind of work has hooked her in part because it offers rewards that resist easy measurement.

"You can measure success," she said, "by looking in the eyes of the children."

CAPTION: Rosana Soares Ribeiro, right, is the house coordinator for Casa Vida, a home for children who are HIV positive. Brazilian philanthropic activity has risen in scale and accountability in recent years.