This year, Christmas giving with a purpose
More firms donate part of their sales to charity. Families, too, put selflessness over acquisition.
ETP Inc. usually sends elaborate cookie and fruit baskets to its clients as a holiday gift. But, this year, the nonprofit management consultant and human resources firm is giving a donation to a World Trade Center relief fund.
Arlington, Va., resident Laura Monti, concerned that traditional charities won't be getting enough contributions, is asking relatives and friends to donate money to the Nature Conservancy in her name instead of buying her a gift.
Andea Ferrari and her husband, Louis, are planning to take their children from Rochester to New York City - not to shop or see the bright lights, but to pay their respects by leaving flowers at a victims' shrine.
"We'll make this our Christmas present to ourselves," says Mrs. Ferrari, mother of 7-year-old Frankie and 5-year-old Danny.
Yes, many Americans this holiday season are marching to the beat of a different drummer. On the heels of the terrorist attacks, some are forgoing the annual shopping binge and instead making contributions or scaling down their purchases. Holiday gift fairs are springing up that direct their profits to charities. Even some retailers are getting into the act, donating a percentage of their profits or hosting benefits for the surviving families. It's as if someone decided to make a real-life remake of the ending of Frank Capra's famous movie, "It's a Wonderful Life."
"There is a lot of evidence that after Sept. 11, people have refocused on core values, and they are asking themselves the question, 'How can I get back to the things in life that really matter to me?' " says Juliet Schor, a Boston College sociology professor. "It's been a wake-up call for many who find themselves operating in a world of excess."
A recent poll conducted for the environmental group Center for a New American Dream found that 63 percent of Americans are planning to make the holiday more meaningful as a result of the recent tragedy. Since October, the group has seen a doubling of visitors to its website. "People want to be connected to people, and our message is to keep things in balance and get in touch with what matters," says executive director Betsy Taylor.
One of those people is Ms. Monti, a graduate student at the University of Maryland. After Sept. 11, she decided that her biggest holiday priority is spending more time with her 9-month-old son. So she told her parents and husband, who works for a credit-card company, to donate money to the Nature Conservancy. "Donating to protect the environment is more important than stuff," she says. "This is the first time I've done this, but I don't know why I didn't think of it before."
One of the reasons people haven't thought of it before, says Ms. Schor, is that the booming economy meant the media spent a lot of time talking about prosperity. "The ordinary person became invisible," she says. "But, 9/11, while it didn't make them more visible, made the concept of need more visible. We realized there were all sorts of different people who worked in the World Trade Center - not just investment bankers. There is a feeling we are all in this together."
Even the retailers acknowledge that this holiday season is different. Ostentatious gifts are out, says the National Retail Federation, which adds that people are looking for gifts with more meaning. "People will be shopping more seriously. They want to connect with people they love," says Tracy Mullin, president of the NRF, a Washington trade group.
This is not to say people are going bah-humbug. For example, Ferrari expects to shop for her boys, and during the visit to New York, she may take them to a huge new Toys "R" Us store that has opened in Times Square. "This holiday is more to get together and watch the kids have a ball," she says.
Some shoppers are trying to spend their money in a way that will help others. For example, Ten Thousand Villages, run by the Mennonite Central Committee, has seen a significant increase in sales this season. Ten Thousand Villages carries products made by artisans from developing countries, such as villagers in Pakistan. "After the Sept. 11 attack, store managers said they had people who said they 'had to come' to the store since it gave them a sense of peace and international community," says Juanita Fox, a spokeswoman for the 59 stores.
America's corporations are also trying to find ways to help others. "We've received a lot of communications from folks, including corporations, that would like to give gifts to families," says George Burke, a spokesman for the New York Firefighters 9-11 Disaster Relief Fund in Washington. "We can't even keep track of the number of teddy bears."
ETP, which contributed money to a disaster fund, is sending out cards that read, in part, "We celebrate by counting blessings, remembering those absent." After meeting with some of her clients, ETP's president and CEO, Mallary Tytel, decided the company would be more careful about how it approached the holidays this year. "People are really thinking differently about what's important to them," she says.
And so are some merchants. Retailer Henri Bendel, for example, has decided to donate profits from the sale of anything that is red, white, and blue, has a flag or an eagle, or says, 'I Love NY.' It also has two "charity" shopping nights, when a percentage of each sale will benefit the New York Police & Fire Widows' & Children's Benefit Fund.
"It's a great opportunity to do holiday shopping but also getting involved by giving back at the same time," says Teril Turner, director of marketing for the store, which is owned by The Limited.
The goodwill is stretching to the Internet as well. After the attacks, Diamonds.com gave $5 per sale to charity, eventually raising more than $20,000. Now, it has created a special page of patriotic jewelry and will give 50 percent of each sale to a charity such as the Widows' & Children's Benefit Fund.
"We want to make a little bit of a difference," says Nicolas Topiol, chief strategy officer of the Sunrise, Fla., firm. "We want to help."