Charities and Gifts and Philanthropy

Charitable giving becomes bigger part of event celebrations

July 14, 2008

Kathryn Morgan and Richard Cimera met at a dog park in Greenwood, where Cimera's basset hound won over Morgan's shy Labrador and boxer mix.

"They just love each other," Morgan said of the dogs. And the owners soon followed suit, dating and then marrying on June 13.

When the Greenwood couple planned their wedding, they wanted a way to share a bit of their happiness. So in lieu of party favors--the little gift of chocolates or picture frames or coasters couples often give their guests--they made a donation to an animal-welfare organization.

"[Favors] may be cute for a minute, but it doesn't have much significance," Morgan said. "We wanted to have an impact on something that was important to us."

So they donated the $200 they would have spent on favors to the Humane Society of Johnson County.

The couple is part of a growing trend: people partying with purpose, working charitable giving into birthdays, weddings and other celebrations.

At Morgan's and Cimera's wedding, each table included a photo of the couple's dogs and a note detailing the donation made in the guests' honor. It's a move that is gaining momentum, said Tonya Shadoan, owner of Fishers-based Circle City Planners.

Of the four weddings she planned in the past month, only one included traditional favors. She said most of the couples come to her with a not-for-profit in mind. "They make it personal," Shadoan said. "It's what's really dear to their hearts."

National push

It's a trend fomented by Washington-based The I Do Foundation, which encourages couples to give as part of weddings. The foundation offers engaged couples a slew of options: traditional online gift registries where the vendors promise to donate a portion of proceeds, invitations and party favors tied to a charity, and for the hard-core philanthropic couple: a charity registry that can replace wedding gifts all together.

Since its inception in 2002, the not-for-profit has raised $3.3 million for other charities, one-third of that in the last year alone.

"We've seen pretty rapid growth as the idea catches on," said Executive Director Grant La Rouche.

He said two main forces are behind the trend. First, people are getting married later in life and are willing to forgo gifts because they already have all the silverware and linens they need. And, he said, more people are looking for a way to put their own stamp on celebrations.

Americans now spend an average of $28,000 per wedding, he said, and many couples want a way to break out of the consumerism.

"They are in the midst of planning [a wedding] and say, 'This isn't me. This isn't reflecting my values,'" he said.

That's exactly the impulse that inspired Hendricks County resident Britter Matthews-Cook, 24, to redirect her bridal shower gifts to charity. Matthews-Cook runs the recycling program for a local waste company, and she and her new husband, James Cook, an inside sales manager, are active in animal-care organizations.

When a friend wanted to throw Matthews-Cook a bridal shower before her May 17 nuptials, she agreed on the condition that, instead of gifts, a donation be made to the host's charity of choice: the Hendricks County Community Foundation.

Then for the wedding, Matthews-Cook made sure everything that could be recycled was, turning in nearly a ton of bottles and cans. Flowers were donated to hospitals and a church. In lieu of favors, the Cooks gave a donation to local not-for-profit Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound.

The couple, who share their home with three adopted dogs, also got in contact with several animal shelters, finding adoptable dogs in the guests' hometowns. They got photographs of the dogs and worked them into the centerpiece on each table. Two dogs were immediately adopted, and a third adoption is pending. "We wanted to share that with the people we love," Matthews-Cook said.

Happy birthday to everyone

People are taking the concept beyond weddings to birthdays, too. Take Amanda Drew, who runs a food bank in Jasper and has seen more charitable gifts tied to birthday parties. So when daughter Maude was getting ready to celebrate her fifth birthday, Drew and her husband asked Maude whether she wanted to collect donations at her party.

"We just kind of planted the idea in her head," Drew said.

Maude pounced on the concept, picking Riley Hospital for Children as the beneficiary. She spent the first two months of her life there after being born with certain organs outside of her body. Maude still makes regular trips to Riley, but is healthy now. She wanted to give back to the children who aren't.

"She was very gung-ho," Drew said.

Maude still got presents from her parents and grandparents, but she collected $755 from the 15 preschool-age friends and family members who attended her birthday party. Drew and Riley set up an official presentation where Maude passed along an oversized check to the hospital.

"This made a big impression on her friends, too," Drew said. "We have way more than we could possibly even use and this has been a good lesson that hopefully she'll carry throughout her life."

Adult bashes are getting into the act, too. When local attorney Lisa Stone turned 50, her husband arranged for a surprise birthday bash at the Humane Society of Indianapolis. The band, caterer and guests set up in the community room. Some shelter staff mingled with guests, giving tours and showing off adoptable animals. The party raised about $5,000 in donations.

"Presents are nice, but it's much nicer to know that an organization that needs the funds gets them," said Stone, who was a member of HSI's board at the time. "These organizations struggle to pay the bills and keep the doors open to do good things. I certainly don't need more stuff."

'An extra level of selflessness'

From the recipients' point of view, all donations are important. But when people go out of their way to think about giving during life's celebrations, it's special.

"It's an extra level of selflessness that people have shown," said Maureen Manier, vice president of communications at Riley Children's Foundation. She said the foundation gets donations tied to children's birthday parties at least once a week.

"It's particularly moving when people take a special event in their lives and make it special for the children," she added.

Donations tied to weddings are becoming so common that the American Heart Association works with couples to customize table cards or donation boxes.

"It's obviously gaining popularity," said Andrew Buroker, an attorney with locally based Krieg DeVault and immediate past chairman of AHA's national board. Often, he said, a wedding couple will tie the gift into honoring the memory of a close family member who died of heart disease.

Becoming part of a donor's celebration helps a not-for-profit establish an emotional connection that likely will stay with the donor, La Rouche said.

Generally speaking, donors who do this already believe in a cause, but the wedding or birthday party can serve almost as a promotional platform for the not-for-profit, said Jessica White, president of locally based fund-raising consultancy Jessica White Associates.

"It gets other people to know about the organizations and become donors themselves," she said.

And checking back in with the donors regularly will help keep them involved and giving, she said. Ideally, giving at the wedding is just the beginning. La Rouche said he's gotten lots of requests for charitable tie-ins to baby registries, an option the foundation hopes to roll out soon.

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