'Alternative' Gifts Can Mean More Than a Present

By Daniele Seiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 30, 2006

Once again the holiday season is here, and frenzied shoppers have begun scrambling to find interesting and meaningful gifts for the people on their lists.

The task can be more than a little daunting -- unbearable lines, long hours and tight budgets -- and the meaning of gift-giving often gets lost in the clamor.

Alternative Gifts of Greater Washington Inc. offers a way to avoid the chaos and give unusual and purposeful presents. From tomorrow to Dec. 10, the group will host "alternative gifts week," when several churches and organizations will have gift fairs or markets at nine locations in Washington, Maryland and Virginia for shoppers to contribute to charitable groups in the names of their loved ones.

The gift fairs have the same basic structure: Shoppers receive a list of "gifts," offered by participating groups, to choose from and can browse among tables where representatives of charities can answer questions. Shoppers can pay for their selected donations at one time and receive individual cards with the gift description written by a calligrapher to send to the people in whose names the donations were made. Some groups will offer choices only from a catalogue rather than an on-site fair.

The selected charities receive 100 percent of the donations.

The idea for a charitable gift fair in the Washington area dates to 1999, when the nonprofit Center for a New American Dream hosted the Takoma Park Alternative Gift Fair. The success of the event inspired the creation of a separate organization dedicated to promoting the concept annually in the area.

"We wanted to work together and centralize" our efforts, said J. Beatty McCray, Alternative Gifts' co-chairman.

Interest in the local fairs appears to be growing. Last year, area residents gave more than $100,000 in alternative gifts, McCray said.

One of the more unusual events is the D.C. Happy Hour Alternative Gift Fair. Although many fairs are hosted by and held at area churches, the happy hour event is at the Front Page bar and restaurant at Dupont Circle. Now in its sixth year, the fair made more than $11,000 for eight groups last year.

"The biggest difference and why I started this version was to attract younger, urban professionals, nonprofit employees and students as shoppers who might not make it to a midday weekend event at a church," said Sat Jiwan Ikle-Khalsa, creator of the event.

The gifts are priced a bit lower, and other enticements, such as drink specials and free appetizers, are offered to shoppers.

"Drink beer, save the world, get your shopping done at the same time," Ikle-Khalsa said.

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