Professor Katherine Pratt
This op-ed was originally published in the Dec. 24, 2009 edition of the Los Angeles Daily Journal. It is republished annually in keeping with season's spirit of giving
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
When I asked my colleague, tax exempt organizations expert Ellen Aprill,
whether such a registry already exists, she directed me to JustGive.org.
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
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 SixDegrees.org
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.