Shoppers help others by helping themselves

The contradiction of rampant consumerism and generous giving seems to characterize holiday economics. But the two impulses are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Consumers have outlets to leverage personal spending for the greater good.

Retail philanthropy: Many national companies direct a chunk of their profits to charities. Foodmaker Newman's Own and ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's, along with clothing manufacturer Patagonia, are well-known examples.

But thousands of small businesses chip in, too. The New Community Corporation (NCC), a nonprofit group in Trenton, N.J., owns a Pathmark shopping center, a construction factory, and a fine-dining restaurant. NCC sends all of its profits to local education and job-training programs. On the Internet, coffee retailer Pura Vida uses its profits to support a ministry that assists families in Costa Rica.

Experts suggest contacting groups like Goodwill and the Salvation Army, or other local nonprofits, to find similar philanthropic retailers in a given area.

Affinity programs: Financial institutions backing credit cards often sponsor programs in which they siphon a small amount (often about 0.5 percent) from each customer purchase to help a group of selected charities.

Those using the Target Corp.'s Guest Card to buy a $10 item, for example, will contribute 1 percent of that purchase, or 10 cents, to a national education charity that gives students and teachers grants and scholarships.

Experts warn that many of these cards carry annual fees and high interest rates.

Internet charity: Various websites play host to retailers that will direct a fraction of an online sale to participating nonprofits chosen by the shopper. The site, for example, sends a few pennies for each dollar spent to any church in the US designated by the shopper. The shopper need only submit the church's address. The site requires about two months to mail each church its check.

Down-payment assistance: Those putting their home on the market can help low-income families afford the purchase by participating in down-payment assistance programs.

These nonprofit organizations provide prospective buyers with the down payment on the condition that the seller agrees to reimburse the group after the closing.

The link is necessary because the government allows sellers to pay for the closing on a house, but not on the down payment. The typical down payment on a government-assisted FHA loan is 3 percent. Neighborhood Gold in Orem, Utah, helps about 1,000 people each month find assistance.

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