Sweet Charity

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

September 18, 2009 5 min read

Holiday season giving should mean more than giving or getting a new toy, the latest gadget or a piece of splashy jewelry. Making a charitable donation is an option, too, one that sometimes is overlooked in the crush of Christmas shopping and festivities.

In 2008, adjusted for inflation, charitable giving was down 5.7 percent, the largest drop recorded since Giving USA, the yearbook on American philanthropy, started tracking America's charitable donation patterns, in 1956. Individual giving, the largest component of charitable contributions, was off 2.7 percent from 2007.

For thousands of charities facing program and staff cutbacks, the 2009 holiday season could be make-or-break time unless the trend is reversed. Armed with a $10 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation that includes a $2.5 million challenge matching grant, the newly created Philanthropy Project is hoping to stimulate that turnaround using film and an Internet partnership with AOL, which should make it easier for people to find the charities to which they'd like to make donations.

Michael Guillen -- who is a three-time Emmy winner, best-selling author and science editor for ABC News -- heads the nonprofit initiative, which went live in July with an AOL Web TV site (http://news.aol.com/philanthropy) it hopes will be the first stop for those eager to give. "I took on the challenge because I believe that the most effective way to solve our nation's most pressing problems is not through large centralized programs run by government or big business, but by the everyday acts of generosity people do for each other," Guillen says.

Guillen -- a former Harvard professor with a Ph.D. in physics, mathematics and astronomy from Cornell -- spent a year writing the grant proposals for the projects in a bid to "popularize philanthropy ... to let people know that philanthropy is not just for the rich and to let people know that each of us, no matter what our station in life might be, has something unique to give someone else in need."

The site has about 500 charities in its database, culled from about 10,000. "We plan to make short films about every one of them in the years ahead, at no cost whatsoever to the philanthropies," Guillen says. The philanthropic groups whose home pages are linked to the site pay no fees and freely can use the films the project has made to help raise funds. Award-winning screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan, meanwhile, already has finished the feature film script inspired by the life of 11-year-old philanthropist Zach Bonner and the Little Red Wagon Foundation. Guillen looks toward its release for the 2010 holiday season.

This year, many major retailers, corporations and philanthropic organizations also are attempting to close the giving gap, by offering exclusive gifts and other incentives to aid local, national and international charitable efforts.

Things Remembered, a gift retailer with more than 600 stores nationwide, marks its 12th year of supporting the Make-A-Wish Foundation with a $2 donation from each purchase of one of six exclusive and engravable gifts, including a teddy bear, jewelry and ornaments.

Hilton is allowing participants in its hotel loyalty points program, Hilton HHonors, to apply accumulated points to any of two dozen charities, including the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity and the March of Dimes.

Vistaprint, a major online supplier of printed and promotional products for business and home, is, for the second year, selling specially designed holiday cards, and 50 percent of the sales prices will go to the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation.

Aflac and more than 200 units of the Macy's department store chain have teamed to sell the annual Aflac Holiday Duck, a plush toy in two sizes. It's $10 for the smaller version and $15 for the larger duck. All proceeds go to the nearest of 38 participating childhood cancer hospitals. Purchases also can be made online, at http://www.AflacHolidayDuck.com.

Women Thrive Worldwide, the 10-year-old Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that supports economic opportunity for women and children living in poverty worldwide, posts links to three "Shop the Cause" fair-trade partners, Original Good, The Amber Chand Global Gift Collection and World Shoppe, whose products are made by women in poor countries who benefit directly from the sales.

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