People now wear their hearts on their wrists

When Americans shop for today's most popular bracelet, they don't go to Tiffany's. Instead, they head online or to the mall for colored wristbands - more like rubber bands than tennis bracelets.

Unlike most jewelry, though, these bands are often associated with a charitable cause.

In the past week, online jewelry and gift store Shanrene, Inc. introduced three blue and white bands to support hurricane Katrina relief efforts. And at the US Open, tennis star Andy Roddick modeled his blue charity band that generates funds for underprivileged children.

Although the wristbands-with-a-message concept is not new - Vietnam POW/MIA bracelets were popular in the 1970s - the latest craze started when Nike debuted the LIVESTRONG band in May 2004. Designed to celebrate Lance Armstrong's attempt at a sixth Tour de France cycling victory (he retired in July with seven), the yellow silicone rubber bands have raised over $41 million for cancer research.

They sell for $1, with about 77 cents from each sale going to the Lance Armstrong Foundation, says spokeswoman Michelle Milford. The foundation's website continues to sell 50,000 to 100,000 bands a day. To date, she say, some 54 million bands have been sold in more than 60 countries.

That success has inspired dozens of charities to jump on the "wristband-wagon."

"It's not unusual in the fundraising world to have charities take ideas from other organizations and have that help them as well," says Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance.

He's not surprised that the marketplace has been quickly inundated with charity bracelets trying to duplicate the LIVESTRONG band's success.

But not all wristbands benefit charities, and unfortunately some wristbands have been sold under false pretenses.

People also buy wristbands purely for fashion. Some NFL teams, sportswear companies like Adidas, and even a few stores have created their own wristbands.

Endless Names, a boutique in Boston, sells flip-flop key chains, fruit-scented markers, coasters, and now wristbands with children's names on them for $4.50 each. The store sells the personalized bands because "they were really popular with kids," says manager Joanne Taylor. The company bought a few just to try, and sales took off.

Some nonprofit organizations have developed wristbands simply to raise awareness. This spring, the free-speech advocacy group J-Ideas handed out white "Live Free, First Amendment Awareness" wristbands, to high schoolers attending workshops for journalists. (J-Ideas is the Ball State Journalism Institute for Digital Education, Activities, and Scholarship in Muncie, Ind.)

"We weren't sure if it was still cool to wear them," says Warren Watson, director of J-Ideas, "but we found out quickly, yeah it is." The group has distributed more than 7,000 free wristbands.

Today, rubber bracelets come in almost every color and have wide appeal. Ten-year-olds wear them, so do corporate executives. Whether for profit or for charity, they usually sell for $5 or less.

"The beauty of wristbands is that they seem to almost market themselves," says Ilona Bray, author of "Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits: Real-World Strategies That Work." "Everyone who studies donors' motives comes away saying, 'Yes, they want to do good, but they also want to feel a sense of belonging.' "

Nonprofits have found that when people wear the bands, they feel good about increasing awareness for a cause.

"Being visible is an important key to change," says Don Kiser, who oversees retail operations at the Human Rights Campaign in Washington. Purchasing merchandise (like wristbands) does not necessarily bring in large donations initially, but "it's the first step on the giving ladder," he says.

Charities have also found that when people become familiar with an organization through merchandise, they become more likely to donate.

"Every organization that relies at all on individual donations is looking for more names to add to their mailing list," author Bray says. "No entry donation is too small, if the organization can cultivate some people for major donations later."

When paralegal Melissa Maino of San Luis Obispo, Calif., heard about a wristband supporting the ONE campaign against poverty, she immediately purchased 10 of them and made a donation. Ms. Maino, who lived in Botswana and South Africa for several years, said she "was thrilled that there was all this publicity for debt relief in Africa."

For others, like 12-year-old Lauren Holdcroft from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, who wears a blue tsunami relief band and a white band against poverty, purchasing wristbands is her way of helping the community. "I can't do anything big, but they're fun to wear, and I'm glad to help out. I can't give $1,000, but I can give $2.50."

Check the source before ordering

While charity wristbands have helped raise millions of dollars for good causes, consumers should make sure their donations are reaching those in need.

"People make the assumption that wristbands are associated with a charity, but that isn't always the case," says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy.

Last month, six people pled guilty to charges concerning the sale of thousands of counterfeit LIVESTRONG wristbands. Three defendants were ordered to pay the Lance Armstrong Foundation a total of $111,830. The other three were sentenced to minimal community service.

To avoid purchases of counterfeit bands, Bennet Weiner of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance advises consumers to watch out for vague wording contained on the packaging of some wristbands, such as "proceeds to go to...."

Genuine organizations usually say exactly how much of the proceeds go directly to the charity.

To find authorized retailers of charitable bands, visit the charity's website, Weiner suggests.

The purpose of these fashionable bands should be honored, he emphasizes. "One hopes that the lesson here isn't solely a fashion statement, but [one] of charity."

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