Paisley McDonald and her fiancé, Chris Madsen, know exactly what they want in a wedding celebration. Engaged in February, they made quick work arranging the details, including a small May beach ceremony on Amelia Island in Florida and later a party for up to 300 in Atlanta, where they live.
They also know what they don’t want: presents.
The couple has instructed loved ones to mark the nuptials with a donation to Compassion International, a Christian organization that works with impoverished youths.
"We mutually said, ‘Let’s not do gifts,’ " explained the 28-year-old Ms. McDonald, an interior designer. The groom already sponsors children through the organization, and they both felt it would be "something other people would care about, too."
The couple is among what event planners and charity leaders describe as a small but growing number of Americans integrating charity into wedding and other milestone celebrations. They are typically well-educated people already active with religious organizations or causes. They often have strong ties with specific charities and are motivated to share the missions with their social networks.
"We have seen a huge increase in these numbers," said Tara Pirkle, giving outreach coordinator at Wounded Warrior Project.
The veterans group offers couples a tent card they can use as part of dinner place settings indicating to party guests that instead of giving them favors the couple has made a donation to Wounded Warrior Project. When she first started working at the charity nearly five years ago, Ms. Pirkle said, she and her colleagues received only infrequent requests for the cards. Last May, with demand growing, she ordered 10,000 new cards and has doled out about half of them.
Candy Culver, director of marketing at the I Do Foundation, said that 242,000 couples have used the website to create charity registries — a twist on the traditional gift-giving mechanism — since it was created in 2002. Users have sent a total of $8.3 million to charities, and the average amount raised per registry is $703. Since 2011, the I Do Foundation, a division of the online-giving site JustGive, has seen a 130-percent increase in users and a 75-percent increase in the amount raised per registry.
Shifting demographics could be a factor, Ms. Culver said. The average age at which people marry climbed to 26.5 for women and 28.4 for men in 2009, compared to 20.6 and 22.5 in 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Market research firms put the current average age of marriage at 29 for women and 31 for men. So many people set up house before tying the knot that traditional gifts of serving platters and toaster ovens are less relevant.
"But I also think we need to give some credit to a more socially aware and active generation," she said. "They can be more committed and engaged in causes, I think to the surprise of a lot of people."
The top five charities designated by couples on I Do Foundation wedding charity registries are Doctors Without Borders, American Cancer Society, Heifer International, Habitat for Humanity, and Save the Children.
"Some of the trends we see is if someone’s family has been changed by an illness or someone’s parents have passed, they give to a relevant organization," Ms. Culver said.
When she set about to plan her 2012 Chicago wedding, Donna Kahn looked for ways to include her older brother, who is severely developmentally disabled. He is a longtime resident of Misericordia, a Chicago organization that provides residential care and other types of services to disabled people and their families. Ms. Kahn opted to use brownies from the Misericordia bakery — staffed by its residents — as party favors for the 400 wedding guests.
For her, it represented multiple things: financially supporting Misericordia, giving the resident bakers meaningful work, and exposing her wedding guests — many of them in town from her husband’s native New York — to an organization dear to her family.
"Even if two more people read up about Misericordia, that to me is even more meaningful than that amount of money," said Ms. Kahn, now 29.
Integrating charitable donations into a wedding requires a certain willingness to thumb one’s nose at social norms, said those who have done it. Kristina Ortega of Los Angeles got mixed reactions when she asked her guests to forgo gifts and make a donation to one of three charities: the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Dolores Mission School, or the San Lucas Toliman Mission.
"Some people thought we were crazy and were actually a little offended that they couldn’t get us anything," said Ms. Ortega, who also replaced her wedding favors with a donation to Million Trees LA and her honeymoon with four weeks of volunteering in India. "Some people thought we were being pretentious and ‘holier than thou.’ "
At least a few guests ignored the couples’ wishes entirely and brought gifts anyway. Others thought it was great and still bring it up almost eight years later, Ms. Ortega said.
To be sure, charities see just a tiny fraction of money spent on such life celebrations. Weddings, for example, are a $55-billion-a-year business, according to market research firm IBISWorld.
The average cost of a wedding was $31,213 in 2014, according to a report produced by the Knot, a wedding resource website, up from $29,858 in 2013. Big-ticket items include a venue, food, and a dress.
Wounded Warrior Project asks for $1 per card for couples looking to replace traditional party favors. It also has a second, albeit less requested card, for couples who ask guests to substitute presents with donations to Wounded Warrior Project. The donations are a "very fun slice of" the charity's overall fundraising, said Ms. Pirkle, herself a 29-year-old bride-to-be. "I love that brides and grooms are so passionate about our mission that they want to include us on their special day," she said. "We make sure they know how appreciative we are."
The trend is not confined to weddings. Maureen McGrath, a mother of two in the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena, said she first experimented with eliminating birthday presents from her daughters’ celebrations nearly a decade ago. Since then, the family has used birthdays to raise money for a horse-rehabilitation organization and to collect food for a pet-food pantry at the Pasadena Humane Society.
"In the beginning, people brought gifts and brought the dog food," Ms. McGrath said, noting the confusion. "Some thought it was strange."
But in the ensuing years, several families in her social circle followed the family’s lead. Now it’s a regular feature at birthday parties that her daughters attend.
Kristina Lamas, vice president for development at the Pasadena Humane Society, said a donor recently celebrated her 90th birthday at a local country club and asked her guests to make donations or cash contributions to the organization. Such fundraisers provide steady support through the year and "often initiate a chain reaction of generosity," she said.
Indeed, some describe a certain contagiousness as more people integrate charity into celebrations. Since her Chicago wedding, Ms. Kahn said, two close friends have opted to work Misericordia into their own wedding celebrations, even though they do not have direct personal ties to the charity.
For Atlanta couple Paisley McDonald and Chris Madsen, the decision to redirect their friends and family members’ benevolence toward Compassion International was intensely personal. Each had been married before and had seen wedding gifts go little used. They knew that the second time around they wanted something more meaningful.
Said Ms. McDonald: "There are so many other people in need, and we have more than we could ever ask for, so why not encourage other people to give?"