By EILEEN AJ CONNELLY -- AP Personal Finance Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — The motivations may vary, but the goal is the same: to spread holiday cheer and have a positive impact at the same time by making donations to charity instead of wrapping up presents.
Toby Marie Walker traces her family's tradition of combining charitable donations and gift giving back to 1985, when her grandfather died. Instead of sending flowers, the family asked people to donate to the Salvation Army. When her grandmother passed away in 2004, the request was for funding for Parkinson's disease research.
Walker, a corporate trainer and consultant in Waco, Texas, again this year asked friends and family to give to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. A gift like that "has some sentimental value," she said.
Walker also sends donations on behalf of friends and relatives to other groups she thinks the recipients would support — donations she figured would reach about $500 this year.
For others like Paul Schenkenberg and his family, it comes down to being grateful they can share some of their good fortune. "We don't need any more stuff," the Minneapolis resident said. "We have two places full of stuff." So Schenkenberg, 55, and his wife, Diane, give to others instead of exchanging presents.
Among their efforts this year, they are sponsoring a family at their church, sending gifts to overseas children they sponsor and paying for a Christmas tree for a needy family. "We just see if we can make people's life a little easier," the communications engineer said, estimating he'd donate about $600 this season.
Their 27-year-old daughter, Leah Heino, inherited the viewpoint. "I live in a very small space. Unless you know I need it or I want it, I probably don't have a place to put it," she said. "If it's just about giving, why is it about giving to me?"
Donations to charities rise in the last few months of the year, reflecting both increased generosity during the holidays and efforts to pile up last-minute tax deductions.
GuideStar, a nonprofit based in Williamsburg, Va., that monitors and evaluates charities, recently surveyed representatives from more than 2,700 charitable organizations and 46 percent said they receive a majority of their donations in the last quarter.
For some it may be a first time, but a charitable contribution in someone else's name is not an uncommon gift. A survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults done for the nonprofit World Vision, which provides disaster relief and other assistance, found that 66 percent have given such a gift, with 44 percent doing so as a holiday present. And 24 percent said they had received a donation as a gift.
Still a lingering concern for some is how a charitable gift might be perceived. "Some people think it's really a thoughtless gift, but it takes some time to research the organizations," Walker said.
They also acknowledged that some people prefer giving and opening traditional gifts.
"I sort of feel Grinchy with a few of my friends in bringing it up," said Heino. "Some people do enjoy poking around all year and amassing these little things that they think I'd like.
"I don't want to take anything away from them, but at the same time I do wonder if we'd all be better served if we put our efforts elsewhere," she added.
Many organizations try to make the most of the season with programs that encourage supporters to donate in others' names. For instance, Heifer International, a Little Rock, Ark.-based nonprofit that buys farm animals for families in developing nations, bills its annual catalog as "The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World." On its pages you'll find ways to purchase various animals for families in developing countries — a flock of chicks for a family in Tanzania for $20, a goat for an Albanian family for $120, or even a share of a water buffalo for a Thai farmer for $25.
Its holiday catalog is one way Heifer generates about half of all donations during the fourth quarter, according to Mike Matchett, senior director of marketing. The organization collected $118.3 million in 2007.
Habitat for Humanity International's "A Gift from the Heart" program is expected to collect about $2.2 million from some 22,000 donors this year, according to Tim Daugherty, senior director of direct marketing. He said the Americus, Ga.-based housing assistance organization has been running its holiday program, which includes mailings and e-mails encouraging donations on behalf of others, for about 20 years.
Even groups that don't receive substantial donations this way have started gift programs. The National Parks Conservation Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for the U.S. park system, gets only a small percentage of its 340,000 members through third-party donations. But according to Mina Stanard, vice president for membership, in response to demand, the group created a program that allows gift membership purchases. "It does allow us to get our message in front of some new folks and extend our brand," Stanard said.
These organizations and numerous others stand to gain from one growing trend for gift givers: charity gift cards. Like retail gift cards that allow users to spend money however they like, charity gift cards allow recipients to choose where to send a donation made by the card purchaser.
The concept of giving charitable donations as gifts also has a supporter in the Westport, Conn.-based Redefine Christmas, a Web site started by the private Dalio Family Foundation.
"We're trying to turn this into the normal behavior pattern during the holidays," said Kevin Ashley. The site links to JustGive and to ChangingThePresent, which both provide ways to donate to thousands of charities.
Ashley said there were more than 25,000 unique visits to redefine-christmas.org through Nov. 30. "That's certainly a strong indicator of success," he said. "What I think is a better indicator of success is when we don't have to do this campaign anymore."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.