December 16, 2010

Small Charities Reap Donations at Alternative Gift Fairs

Dan Sperling (right), a volunteer for the nonprofit Share Literacy, shows two Takoma Park residents a children's book that they can "gift" to a child from an underprivileged family.

On a crisp fall day in Takoma Park, Md., just outside of Washington, about 200 people gathered in a spacious church hall for an unusual shopping spree. They bought holiday gifts for friends and relatives but left with nothing except slips of paper that bore the transaction and said: “A gift has been given in your honor.”

They purchased these “gifts” at Takoma Park’s annual Alternative Gift Fair, where checks and cash turned into donations for the charities that were represented there.

For the past 12 years, the holiday event has supported an array of local and international charities. Shoppers, for example, can make a gift that will pay for formula for infants in Malawi through the African Mothers Health Initiative, a school lunch that Pueblo a Pueblo will provide to youngsters in Guatemala, or a rafting trip the Sierra Club will offer to needy inner-city kids.

This year’s fair raised $22,070 for 18 charities, a big increase over the $16,000 raised last year, when the recession and bad weather combined to dim giving desires. This year’s improved numbers also resulted from a more-intense marketing effort.

It’s not just the money collected this year that will help many charities.

“We’ve heard a lot of stories about folks who become volunteers as a result of their experience here or become larger dollar donors over time after being acquainted with the organization for the first time here,” says J. McCray, co-chair of Alternative Gifts of Greater Washington, which organized the Takoma Park gathering,

Bouncing Back

Alternative gift markets have existed for more than 20 years. Nearly 80 percent are held during the holiday season by religious groups, schools, and civic organizations, according to Alternative Gifts International, a Wichita, Kan., group that promotes such markets. The economic downturn has clearly hurt these gift fairs: Alternative Gifts International raised $740,000 for nonprofits in 2009, compared with $1.2-million in 2006, long before the downturn started. This year, the group is hoping to raise at least $700,000, primarily because fewer markets registered to run an alternative gift fair. Only 189 communities are participating in 2010, down from 220 last year.

But like Takoma Park, some communities reported strong totals already this year: Sunnyvale, Calif., raised $24,000, $4,000 more than last year, and Wichita, Kan, raised $16,000, $1,000 more than last year.

Of the 10 markets that have reported totals so far this year, half improved and the other half stayed flat, says Tony Princ, director of operations at Alternative Gifts International. “We’re encouraged,” says Mr. Princ, who believes better planning and promotion led to the increases in giving. “It’s always a challenge for us to continue to keep growing.”

Although people can shop and order many of the items online that were found at the event in Takoma Park, attendees say they participate in the local event because of the relative ease with which they can browse the promotions offered by a wide range of nonprofits and ask questions about the work a charity does and try to figure out how much of a difference a donation makes.

Mr. McCray says most of the organizations that exhibit at the fair “tend to be smaller, a little more grass roots, because for them a donation of $1,000 or $2,000 makes a big difference in terms of their annual budget.”

For the charities that participated in the Takoma Park event, the fair offers a good way to build relationships with donors.

“Whatever we get, we’ll be appreciative of it,” says Carroll “Spyke” Henry, founder of Smart Activities for Fitness and Education, a youth-services program that provides educational instruction and sports activities in Washington. He says many residents were asking about his organization’s college-preparatory program and tennis academy.

“We’ve been coming here for about four years now,” says Ruth Li, a volunteer for the Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team, an international disaster-relief organization in Rockville, Md. People who attend the fair, she says, “are ready to think about spending their money in a different way.”

To prepare, organizers in Takoma Park raised $1,000 in raffle items by holding bake sales and getting financial support from local donors and businesses. In addition to shopping for alternative gifts, attendees could receive free seated massages, listen to live music, and meet Alternative Santa, an African-American man who donned a Santa costume.

“What you find when you come here, it’s a real celebration of this concept,” Mr. McCray says. “This is a real community feel. You get to have that in-person connection with the charities.”

For some attendees, it’s a family affair. Nadine Bloch says she and her family have come almost every year to search for gifts to include with their homemade ones.

“I’m not a very big donator,” Ms. Bloch says. “I spend about a $100 to $200 a year. It’s a lot of money for us. But I feel it’s well spent.

“My younger daughter often helps me pick out something that she wants to gift to one of her little friends. They can understand the whole process of sharing a little bit of the wealth that we have.”