Would you like to give a holiday present that allows a needy person to do the getting for a change?
Look no further than the dizzying array of Internet sites that turn Web-surfing holiday shoppers into armchair philanthropists.
You'll find charity "malls," giving portals and auction sites where proceeds go to nonprofits and donors get a tax deduction. There are giving "catalogs" that give you a chance to pick out a cow for a family trying to feed itself. And there are Web sites created by hundreds of charities - from established names such the American Red Cross to small, emerging nonprofits - where you can send a direct donation online or by e-mail.
Analysts say online giving made up a small portion of the $190 billion Americans gave to charity last year. But the number of sites that solicit gifts online has mushroomed. A February report on e-philanthropy contained a listing of 140 charity-related sites, 100 of which were less than a year old.
iGive.com, one of the oldest charity shopping malls, has a phrase for what it offers donors: the chance to be "virtually virtuous." iGive allows consumers to buy items from retailers such as Land's End and Barnes and Noble, while the retailers agree to send up to 15 percent of the purchase price to charity.
At AllStarCharity.com, you can bid for crystal goblets signed by Jennifer Aniston to benefit the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, or an evening gown worn by Susan Lucci for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
Portals such as CharityWave.com link you with nonprofits that range from Alaska Native Health board to Youth Audiences for Greater Cleveland.
iGive says shoppers can deduct the proportion of their purchase that goes to charity from their income taxes. That's not necessarily the case on all sites.
Bennett Weiner of the Better Business Bureau's Philanthropic Advisory Service advises caution when dealing with charity Web sites.
"In general, high-tech does not guarantee high ethics," he said.
Donors should look for policies dealing with tax-deductibility, privacy of information, security of credit card numbers, and percentage of a purchase or donation that actually goes to the charity once fees are taken out. They should also find out whether charities have given permission for the site to use their names. In a number of cases, Weiner said, no such permission has been given.
Some sites may wait until a minimum amount has been donated to the charity before forwarding the money. "Remember that although you can purchase with a click of the mouse, that's not necessarily how quickly the charity is going to get the money," Weiner said.
In Maryland, the Office of the Secretary of State encourages donors to check charity registration and finances through its Web site (www.sos.state.md.us), according to charities division director Nikki Baines Trella.
Some nonprofits, realizing that donors don't want to pay extra credit card fees, have created online pledge cards that allow the donor to commit money while sending it in the old-fashioned way - by check, said Jay Love, president and chief executive officer of eTapestry.com, which advises nonprofits on how to use the Internet.
Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropic studies and public policy at Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy, said he worries that the ease and distance online giving provide ultimately may erode philanthropic spirit.
"One of the things we know about why people give is that they identify with charities," Lenkowsky said. "With Internet giving, often the identity you might have with the charity is pretty far removed. There's no question at all that this makes giving a lot easier for a lot of people. That's not necessarily a good thing for charities. ... You can make giving too easy, and ultimately, in the long run what benefits charity is the commitment of people."
Where to give
Giving "portals," often searchable by area of interest, offer links to a host of charities. They include sites like www.helping.org and its cousin, www.helpingmaryland.org (for Maryland charities); www. idealist.org and www.charity wave.com.
Auction sites to benefit nonprofits include www.missionfish. com, www.allstarcharity.com and www.webcharity.com.
Charity shopping malls allow you to purchase items with a portion of the price going to a charity of your choice. Sites include www. igive.com, www.charitymall.com and www.greatergood.com.
Giving "catalogs" can be found at www.heifer.org, where you can buy a cow, llama or bees for a family trying to be self-sufficient, or at www.worldvision.org, which will let you buy a bicycle for a child overseas.
To research charities online, look for evaluation reports, as well as tips for giving, at the Better Business Bureau's site (www. bbb.org). You can look for charity tax returns and other financial information at www.guidestar.org. In Maryland, the secretary of state's site includes a searchable database of organizations, with financial data: www.sos.state. md.us.