Charity Checks: Giving Tradition

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Our family is sort of loose on holiday traditions. It could be that having family scattered across the country is the reason for the dearth of holiday routine. Or maybe it's some notion of tradition=authority that scares my husband and I. Now I'm picturing Santa Claus as The Man and it's rather silly. So this year, we're going to start a new tradition.

What's easier than baking a Yule Log, less time-consuming than stringing popcorn-cranberry garlands and really helps others? I first learned about Charity Checks through a friend a couple of years ago. I thought it sounded great and never followed up. But now that I'm publishing my intention, chances are that I'll make good.

Good is a word that deservedly goes to Victor Dorff and Lisa Sonne, the husband and wife team who created and run Charity Checks. They even took on the IRS to make their philanthropic model a reality. Here's how it works:

Let's say I buy $100 in Charity Checks. I specify that I'd like two $50 checks; one for each of my daughters. I receive the two $50 checks, but the Payee line is blank. I give the checks to my daughters. They look at me confused and then I explain to them that they can pick any non-profit group they want and give that group the check.

As Lisa explained, for many children this is the first check they've ever filled out and it's going to a cause the child has chosen and cares deeply about. For many kids, it's a chance to see money as a resource.

"For some kids, money may only seem like a way to buy a cooler pair of shoes or get material things. And it's really nice for kids to have an opportunity to stop and realize that money can also be applied toward problems. We love our program because kids get to be philanthropists at an early age. Our charitable literacy program can be part of Hanukah or Christmas or a birthday because the child can become a philanthropist at an early age. They can use money, whether it's to grow someone a better garden or work on a disease that seems incurable. It's connecting their passions."

From Victor I picked up on the excitement they experience in talking with kids directly.

"You really get to watch the kid think about something that never has occurred to him or her before. There's a certain empowerment there. It's one thing to say, 'What do you care about?' when it's abstract. But if you say to a kid, 'Okay, here's $25. Do you want to save a puppy's life? Feed a hungry person? Buy a book for the library?' Suddenly, the kids find themselves thinking about things they never thought about before. You've got some that gravitate towards exactly what you would expect. Some head toward ecology or diseases that have affected their family. And then you also watch them head toward things you couldn't possibly have predicted.

One of our favorite stories is from the very first year we did this. A group of 2nd graders were given the opportunity to use Charity Checks and the teacher was using a hurricane as an example and how the Red Cross had gone in and helped and other organizations were providing food. This one 2nd grader said, 'I don't want money to go to any of that. I want my money to go for people who will prevent the hurricanes in the first place.' And you think, well, I don't think anyone's doing that... We looked into it and there was an offshoot of the National Weather Service...and that's where he sent his $25."

Since 2000, Charity Checks has been a labor of love for them both. Victor got the idea one day on the elevator ride up to their apartment in New York.

"I had just come from the mailbox and my arms were full with catalogs and solicitations from organizations I'd given money to in the past. When I got to the front door I said to Lisa, 'There ought to be a universal charitable giving gift certificate so that you could give money to charity and get your tax deduction without ending up on mailing lists.' Lisa picked it up and ran with it and said, 'And there could be a charitable literacy component.' It was just like in the movies when somebody says, 'Hey, I've got a barn, we could put on a show!' It sprang out whole based on those two ideas."

The tax deduction for the giver comes through Charity Checks and ushers in the phrase pan-philanthropic. Victor worked with the IRS to create the designation for a charity that funnels money into other charities. At the time they created this model, people told them they were nuts, but now there are other organizations like Charity Checks that do exactly this. Charity Checks remains unique in reaching out to families, corporations, individuals and schools. For corporate giving, they offer an alternative to the old so-and-so donated a tree in your name. Employers can give Charity Checks to employees with the company's logo on it. Employees choose a non-profit and a new dialogue about giving starts in the office.

As Lisa said, "Giving thoughtfully takes practice." This year, we'll start practicing with Charity Checks. I'm really excited to see which non-profits my daughters choose and to watch their decision-making process. Will they choose saving animals, continuing to help with campaigns they've worked on at school? My guess is that they'll take me by complete surprise. This is a tradition I can get behind--one that shows my daughters in a new and thoughtful light while helping others.

You can find Charity Checks at their website or on Facebook and follow the stories of this season's giving.