A charitable take on giving

Alternative gift fairs offer shoppers less materialism, more ways to help over holidays


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, 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, they come up with 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 area. About 200 shoppers visit the fair each December, McCray said, donating a total of about $20,000 each year.

The fair resembles a festive shopping center, minus the crowds. Greeters hand out shopping lists, a musician plays holiday music and there's a space for children's activities, McCray said.

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 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 Alternative Gifts of Greater Washington'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, the 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, and she said she continues the practice with her in-laws and other family. 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 growing 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's necessary to spend a lot of money to enjoy the holiday.

People "want to have an event where they wake up and feel refreshed and renewed rather than exhausted," said Betsy Taylor, the organization's president.

Donating to charities in someone else's name, making homemade gifts and volunteering time are good ways to give during the holidays without spending a lot of money, Taylor said.

For Robinson, the purpose of the Brookmont fair isn't to make people stop shopping altogether, "but to get some of the joy from knowing that you are reaching out to others, which seems to me the more central meaning of the holidays."

Dorcas Taylor writes for the Capital News Service.

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