By Jeff Brumley
When it began nearly a decade ago, the Alternative Christmas Gift Fair at Boulevard Baptist attracted barely 100 church members and generated a few thousand dollars for participating nonprofits and mission groups.
But it has since generated $200,000 and drawn more than 300 each year from around Anderson, S.C. With the ninth-annual event scheduled Dec. 1-2, organizers say they’re challenging Black Friday and holiday-related consumerism.
“Our joke is that department stores don’t have anything on us,” said organizer Ellen Sechrest, minister of spiritual formation and missions at Boulevard.
Sechrest and faith-based nonprofit leaders say Boulevard’s experience is reflective of national and global trends in alternative gift giving.
The practice involves making contributions toward the purchase of goods and services for those in need domestically or internationally. A donation may provide books for at-risk children in Florida or a water well for an African village.
Donors can also give to different classes of ministry, such as disaster relief, combating human trafficking and health care, or to support an individual missionary.
The donation is then made in the name of a friend or loved one, which is making the practice one of the most popular forms of charitable giving nationally, nonprofit leaders say.
Local, state and global ministries and nonprofits report that an increasing number of donors are asking for the ability to make their donations into such gifts.
They also are seeing more churches wanting to facilitate such giving among their members and communities with annual fairs like Boulevard’s.
“We participate in three to four of these things a year, and they seem to be growing yearly,” said Bill Stanfield, chief executive officer of Metanoia, a North Charleston-based, Cooperative Baptist ministry that serves impoverished children and families.
At Boulevard’s fair, Metanoia offers gift packages for varying prices. One includes $50 to provide one child’s books during summer camp.
Alternative giving “benefits us from a financial standpoint…and it keeps our name out there, which helps our ability to do our work,” Stanfield said.
‘A deep, spiritual level’
Missionaries and others who see the end result of the alternative gift trend also are big fans of it, said Nell Green, a Texas-based CBF missionary with extensive global experience.
Green said she’s seen human trafficking victims benefit for targeted gifts of clothing and money. Overseas, she’s seen impoverished communities benefit from businesses created from donations used to provide micro financing.
“It’s a small sum of money for us but it makes a significant difference in their lives,” Green said.
The donors, both in name and in fact, also are strongly impacted – especially when letters and photos begin arriving from recipients, Green said.
“Once you make that investment, you will learn about the person or project, and you’ll put that somewhere and be reminded to pray for them,” Green said.
“I think that goes a long way beyond ‘here’s a new shirt for Christmas,’” Green said. “It does give back on a very deep, spiritual level.”
Lives, generations changed
And it doesn’t take a lot to do that, said Devin Hermanson, director of marketing for World Vision.
The agency’s gift catalogue alone generates $35 million year with items like five ducks for $30, a goat and two chickens for $100, an array of clean water gifts and more.
“I’ve seen them change lives and even generations of lives,” he said.
Hermanson said that ability to make a major impact for just a few dollars likely fueled the increase of that kind of giving even during the worst years of the recession.
“During that period our revenue increased 20 percent, and we have never had a down year,” he said.
‘A feel-good purchase’
The agency’s own polling found that in addition to stretching their dollars, consumers saw alternative gifts as a way to teach children about sacrificial giving.
“People are hungry for a different way of celebrating Christmas,” he said. “Eighty-three percent said they would rather receive a meaningful gift.”
Sechrest said word continues to spread through Anderson about the fair and how good it feels to give and receive alternative gifts.
The result is more people from outside the congregation shopping at the fair each year, and more visitors from other churches wanting to start their own, she said.
“It goes back to that feel-good purchase,” Sechrest said. “It’s a win-win because you made somebody really happy in a much more meaningful way.”