Gift-giving takes less materialistic turn for holidays

Alternative gift fairs spring up across U.S., and charities offer ways to give - and help


In lieu of giving expensive gadgets, ugly sweaters or sure-to-be-returned gifts during the holidays, more people are donating to charities and nonprofits for those on their gift lists.

To make this trend easier to follow, alternative gift fairs are springing up here and around the country.

"It's a particularly nice boost for some of these organizations at the end of the year," said Jason McCray, the board co-chairman of Alternative Gifts of Greater Washington, D.C., Inc., sponsor of three area fairs.

Representatives answer questions about what the organization does, how the money is spent and whom it helps. To alleviate confusion, the representatives give tangible examples of how they use donations.

Last year, $2 paid a single-day's salary for an Afghan schoolteacher; $10 bought a week's worth of milk for an HIV-positive mother in Kenya; and $150 purchased a reading lamp with a magnifier for a senior citizen.

This way, "when the gift recipient opens it up, they can sense the impact of the gift," McCray said.

In its seventh year, the Takoma Park Alternative Gift Fair is the largest and oldest in the region. About 200 shoppers visit the fair each December, McCray said, donating a total of about $20,000 each year.

Last year's Takoma Park fair was the first for Peter Sage, executive director of Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team, or AMURT, a Rockville-based nonprofit that conducts international relief and development work.

Most shoppers had never heard of it, Sage said, yet the organization raised more than $1,000.

"[A donor] benefits the life of someone in other parts of the world," he said. "It has a good multiplier effect."

The Takoma Park experience was so positive Sage sent word to AMURT volunteers nationwide to attend similar events in their areas. This year, AMURT went to fairs in Philadelphia and Boston and plans to attend events in Portland and Eugene, Ore.

There are 12 regional fairs and markets listed on AGGW's Web site, and McCray said he learns of new ones every year. Organizations that follow charity donations haven't started tracking the popularity of donations-as-gifts or gift fairs.

Giving to charities and nonprofits increases at the end of the year, said Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, partly for tax deductions and partly in the spirit of the holidays.

Last year, Sandy Robinson of Bethesda helped organize a gift fair at her Brookmont Church and raised $2,700 for six organizations. "I survive about five minutes in the mall," she said. "After about five minutes, I decide I don't need any of it and I need to go home."

Robinson's father started the donations-as-gifts tradition about 10 years ago. There was always an "anti-materialist tradition" in her family, she said, and an awareness that they had the necessities of life, while others did not.

Shoppers like Robinson are part of a trend to make gift giving and the holidays less stressful and more meaningful.

According to a poll of 500 people by the Takoma Park-based Center for a New American Dream, 78 percent wish the holidays were less materialistic, 87 percent believe the holidays should be more about family and caring for others and 79 percent do not believe it is necessary to spend a lot of money to enjoy the holiday.

Dorcas Taylor writes for the Capital News Service.

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