More Choose Gift That Truly Keeps Giving

Bill Strathmann, chief executive of Network for Good, holds one of his group's
Bill Strathmann, chief executive of Network for Good, holds one of his group's "Good Cards," charity gift cards that can be applied to any of the 1.5 million registered charities in the United States. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2008

While holiday shoppers combed the aisles for the perfect gift, Janella Franklin agonized over whether a close friend would rather support the Nature Conservancy or the Denver Zoo. She had settled on a charitable donation as her friend's birthday present, but the options seemed endless. Finally, she turned to that time-tested fallback option: the gift card.

Long the exclusive domain of retail stores, gift cards are quickly becoming a major source of holiday donations to nonprofit groups. The Bethesda-based nonprofit Network for Good offers "Good Cards," which can be applied to any of the 1.5 million registered charities in the United States. The group sells 500 a day, a number chief executive Bill Strathmann expects to grow through the holidays.

Corporations are also getting into the game: The country's largest mutual fund, Fidelity Investments, began a program this month that allows clients' friends and family to donate to charity with e-mail gift certificates.

"This year, largely due to the economy and people's own money concerns, consumers are looking for ways to be thrifty and generous all at once," said Lucy Bernholz, president of Blueprint Research and Design, a philanthropy advisory firm that publishes a blog on the business of giving. That two-for-one desire has led to what she calls "good gifting," of which the cards are just one example.

The charitable gift cards aren't much different from their more established cousins in the retail sector, which are expected to account for $24.9 billion in holiday spending this year, according to the National Retail Federation. There is no comparable data for charitable gift cards.

The giver goes to one of at least half a dozen Web sites, pays a small transaction fee and chooses a recipient and gift amount.

Recipients receive either an e-mail or a plastic gift card directing them to the site, where they can browse different charities, then apply the gift to a favorite. The gift can be split among several groups. The system sends an e-mail to the gift-giver with information about where the recipient donated the money.

Pleased with her friend's reaction to the birthday gift, Franklin, a nonprofit development director who lives in Washington, bought charity gift cards for everyone on her Christmas list.

"With everything going on with the economy right now, I didn't want to give material gifts that wouldn't have meant anything to them," Franklin said. "I could bake them cookies or something, but this is a way to feel like they're giving back too."

In past years, "good gifting" generally has meant giving a donation in someone else's name, such as through Heifer International, which sends livestock to poor families around the world. Several umbrella nonprofit groups publish guides to other organizations that encourage donations as gifts.

The gift card program is a natural evolution of that idea.

"I feel like it's a little presumptuous to give in someone's name to a group that I choose; it could be a little awkward if you give it to someone who doesn't support that group," said Heidi Henry, who gave gift cards to her 25 classmates when they graduated from a master's program in nonprofit administration at Seattle University last week. "It's more personal than a gift card to a store because it actually aligns with something they care about."

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