Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What I want for Christmas is...

By Professor Katie Pratt

This op-ed was originally published in the Dec. 24, 2009 edition of the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

Nothing. Well, not exactly nothing--just nothing for me. What I really want for Christmas is for more holiday gift-givers to honor their family, friends and business contacts by making charitable contributions on their behalf instead of buying them material gifts. Members of my family recently exchanged the names of our favorite charities and agreed to make charitable contributions this year, in lieu of our usual Christmas gifts. Now I have started to think about how this could happen on a much larger scale.

Societal norms currently favor material gifts over charitable contributions to honor someone. A gift-giver often has no way of knowing whether friends, family, and business contacts would prefer a material gift or a charitable gift in their honor. Also, a gift-giver might be concerned about appearing cheap and selfish if she substitutes a tax deductible donation for a non-deductible material gift. When in doubt, gift-givers make the "safe" gift choice and give material presents. On the gift recipient's side, there typically is no easy, socially acceptable way of communicating to gift-givers a preference for a charitable contribution. This is especially true with respect to gifts for business associates, clients and professionals such as doctors.

The solution to these obstacles is an online charitable donation gift registry on which individuals and businesses could express their desire for donations to their preferred charities, in lieu of material gifts, by registering on the website. The registry would maintain a searchable list of the parties who have registered, with their preferred charities, and a list of charities, organized alphabetically by name and subject area and searchable by name or keyword. Gift-givers could search the registry to make donations honoring their friends, family, and business contacts. A fitting name for the registry would be the Gifts for Good Registry.

When I asked my colleague, tax exempt organizations expert Ellen Aprill, whether such a registry already exists, she directed me to JustGive is an online charity that maintains a searchable list of 1.5 million charities and allows a person to create a Charity Registry. The Charity Registry functions like my imagined Gifts for Good Registry, but lacks some features I envisioned, such as an e-card acknowledgement, to notify the honoree of the donation and allow for an online thank-you, and an option to

buy stickers for holiday cards or a tasteful placard for display in a business office, announcing registration on the site. Also, JustGive charges a fee for each donation from the Charity Registry.

After doing more research, I learned that JustGive is just one of numerous online charities that are trying to promote online charitable giving. Network for Good, which calls itself "the largest nonprofit charitable giving site online," lists charities as well, but I had difficulty using the search tools on this site and had no idea

how to upload a photo onto its site, for its "Million Mom" online monument project, as it requested. I also discovered that online organizations like Karma411, BringLight and facilitate social networking regarding a specific cause, but that approach fits people with focused charitable interests better than it fits a charitable generalist like me.

For me, the most helpful online charitable donation feature is a simple, user-friendly registry, along the lines of JustGive's Charity Registry. I hope JustGive will continue to improve the Charity Registry and eliminate the fees it charges for donations.

JustGive and other online charities that are encouraging online charitable giving are onto something good--and potentially something great. Think of what it would accomplish if many gift-givers made donations in lieu of material gifts: It would reduce the money currently being wasted on inefficient, mismatched gifts, the

time spent shopping for and shipping material gifts, and the environmental damage caused by wrapping and shipping gifts. It also would help to convert the prevailing societal norm of material consumerism into a new societal norm of passing on gifts to those less fortunate; last, but not least, it would provide charities with more funds to serve those less well off

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