Christmas may be fast approaching, but Cynthia McKay isn't interested in receiving any presents — unless they're cartons or cans of dog food or cat food.
McKay, of Castle Rock, Colo., is among thousands of Americans who believe the spirit of Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa is best expressed through charity. They aim to help struggling artists, educational programs, the environment, missionary work, needy families or, in McKay's case, unwanted dogs and cats.
For many, charitable giving at the holidays has become a family tradition.
Americans have a history of generosity, with about six in 10 families routinely contributing to charity, according to a study released earlier this month by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. The average amount given by those families averaged $2,045 a year, it said.
Last year, individuals and families donated an estimated $223 billion; when charitable bequests, foundation grant-making and corporate donations were included, the total surpassed $295 billion.
In Colorado, McKay, who owns a gift basket company, focuses her charitable giving on animals.
Dog hit by car tapped well of generosity
She got started several years ago when she heard of a dog that had been struck by a car and was about to be put down because the owners were not willing to pay veterinary fees.
"I drove over and paid the $3,000 for the vet," she said. "And I thought, this kind of thing must happen all the time."
So instead of holiday gifts — "I certainly don't need anything that I can't get myself" — McKay began collecting money and supplies for animal shelters, bird rescue operations and other similar causes.
In Columbus, Ohio, Amy Stomieroski read in a newspaper several years ago that The United Methodist Children's Home, which provides temporary housing for kids from troubled families, wanted some cookies for its holiday gatherings.
"I love to bake and so do several of my friends, so I sent out an e-mail," she said. "The first year, I baked (the cookies) and everyone brought frosting or decorations."
It was a success, she said, because "it was something we could do as a group — and share with the community."
Making decorated cookies — several hundred of them — for the children's home has become an annual event now, and the bakers and decorators have grown to include boyfriends, husbands and several children, Stomieroski said.
A recent study by Nuveen Investments in Chicago found that the majority of people make philanthropic contributions because they want to share their good fortune. Many support community-based programs and causes they feel passionate about.
Involving the children
John Nersesian, managing director for wealth management services at Nuveen, said the holidays are an ideal time to get children involved.
Kids, Nersesian said, often have pet projects that are quite different from those of their parents. For example, his son Daniel, 12, who is involved in the Boy Scouts, has encouraged family contributions to the scouting movement, he said. His daughter Margaux, 8, urged support for a local food drive for the homeless, he added.
"The sooner you involve children (in charitable giving), the more likely it will become a habit," he said.
Holly Koenig, vice president of Kellen Co., which provides management services to nonprofit groups, said that her family traditionally has shared stories of what they're thankful for at Thanksgiving and Hanukkah gatherings.
Her daughter, Lauren, who is 7 and suffers from cerebral palsy, "has been fortunate to receive a lot of care and therapy" from the community over the years, Koenig said. "We're all thankful, and our goal is to teach her to give back," she added.
At Lauren's suggestion, the family has begun visits to an assisted living facility near their home on Long Island.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, Lauren and some of her second-grade classmates went to the home to read poems and sing karaoke with the elderly residents. At Christmas there will be small gifts, such as baby powder and foot warmers, for the residents.
"So many of the people there don't get visitors, and they're so appreciative that the children take an interest in them," Koenig said.
Beth Monaghan, who owns the InkHouse public relations firm in Brookline, Mass., said her family traditionally has exchanged gifts. This year, they drew names out of a hat to give a single gift. The money they otherwise would have spent on gifts will go to charity.
"Each of use will choose our own charity, but we're keeping it secret until Christmas," she said. "Then we'll share what we're doing with the others."
The unexpected bonus has been some leisure time, Monaghan added. On a recent Sunday afternoon, she had a block of time to write poems to her parents, brother and sister, "something I never would have had the time to do if I had to go shopping."