December 15, 2004
EILEEN ALT POWELL
NEW YORK - As Christmas approaches, many families get buried under a blizzard of solicitations from charities seeking money for everything from community activities to needy villages overseas.
What's the best way to choose among them?
"Find a charity that matches your passions and beliefs," said Trent Stamp, executive director of Charity Navigator in Mahwah, N.J., which evaluates philanthropic groups. "That's rewarding to them - and to you."
He said that if environmental protection is a family's pet cause, they can contribute to a group like the Rainforest Alliance, which is involved in ecological projects worldwide, or to The Wilderness Society, which works across the United States, or to a community group dedicated to cleaning up a local river.
"There are too many good charities out there to settle for a loose fit," Stamp said.
Holiday giving decisions are especially important to philanthropic groups because half of charitable donations by individuals and families are made between Thanksgiving Day and New Year's Day. And it's a lot of money: Consumers account for about two-thirds of the $240 billion in charitable giving each year.
Families have found a variety of ways to deal with solicitation overload - and still have plenty of options for giving.
Tim Smith, director of public relations at InterStar Marketing & Public Relations in Fort Worth, Texas, said he and his wife Lori were being overwhelmed by holiday charitable campaigns.
"We were getting so much mail," he said. "Some were from kind of questionable-looking groups. Others looked interesting but we didn't know them."
They found a solution through their church, the University Christian Church, which is affiliated with Texas Christian University. The church each year selects a list of 10 to 12 charities. Members of the congregation can pick among them and make contributions in their own names or in the names of friends and relatives.
Donations small and large are welcome, with $5 buying six pounds of nails for Habitat for Humanity International, $10 purchasing a warm blanket for the local Presbyterian Night Shelter and $50 buying equipment for the campaign to eradicate land mines.
"Now we sit down with the list every year," Smith said. "This year, we're interested in a door for Habitat for Humanity and perhaps clothing for an abused or neglected child. We also like the idea of a wheelbarrow for construction in Honduras at a church-sponsored project."
Smith often makes his donation in the name of others; they get a gift certificate detailing the contribution.
"You have the pleasure of giving to a charity and knowing they'll do good work, and you're involving someone else," he said. "They love it, too."
Doug Drotman, who heads his own communications firm in Commak, N.Y., wanted to teach his children the importance of charitable giving, but he didn't think his kids - Claire, 7; Derek, 6, and Lindsay, 3 - would understand the concept of writing a check.
So Drotman and his wife, Michele, pack their children in the car during the holiday season to buy goods for Long Island Cares, a charity that collects food and other necessities for needy children, the elderly, the unemployed and those with disabilities.
"We go aisle to aisle and it makes us think about what people need," he said. "We buy food, mostly canned, sometimes bottles of juice and soda. And we get toilet paper, warm gloves, hats and scarves at an outlet store, because we get more for our money."
They take the goods home, sort them, then reload the car and deliver their contributions to the charity.
Ellen Sabin of New York, who has worked with a number of nonprofit organizations in the United States and abroad, believes that families should remember that charitable giving involves more than cash.
In her newly published children's book, "The Giving Book - Open the Door to a Lifetime of Giving," Sabin suggests that families open their minds to the many causes that need support, from cleaning the environment to helping the homeless to supporting educational programs to assisting those who are disabled or sick.
"The message is, you can help others by donating money or things," she said. "But it's more than that. It's sharing your time and your talents. ... It's learning that your actions can make a difference."
Sabin's ideas for holiday contributions include baking cookies to take to a hospital or home for the elderly, volunteering to pick up litter in your neighborhood and visiting someone who's alone.
"Everybody has something to give," she said.
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