Mixing charity and shopping: Check before you spend

It seems like the ultimate in holiday multitasking: Buying a shirt as a gift and part of the price goes to charity.

Such deals beckon from malls and department stores at this time of year, hoping to capitalize on shoppers’ tendency to be more generous around the holidays. Before purchasing such an item, however, consider whether it really fits Aunt Jane’s style or if the majority of its allure comes from its altruistic halo. 

If it’s the later, leave it in the store. You can find better ways to give gifts that support charities.

“There are many ways to marry philanthropy with gift-giving, though you have to do your due diligence,” said Susan Miniutti, vice president of marketing at Charity Navigator, which ranks nonprofit organizations.

That’s not possible with many store displays featuring items with a charitable connection because they often lack crucial details about the arrangement. Is it a portion of the sales, or the profits, that go to the charity? The article might not generate any profit.

Is there a cap on the total amount of money that will be donated to the charity? If so, it may have been reached by the time of your purchase.

Is the charity specified, or does the promotion just say something generic like cancer research? That fuzzy description won’t help figure out how the money is really being used.

Instead of buying the shirt for Aunt Jane, consider donating to a charity in her honor or give a specific gift to someone needy in her name.  For example, a $58 donation to the International Rescue Committee will send a child to school for year, while $84 will buy blankets for a family.

Other options will give loved ones something to open during the gift exchange. The U.S. Fund for UNICEF operates an online marketplace with crafts made from artisans around the world. Products start below $25, and part of the proceeds go to the individual who made the item, while the rest goes to support UNICEF’s mission.

Know a kid who is an animal lover? You can “adopt” a lion or panda or host of other animals for the youngster through a $55 donation to the World Wildlife Fund. No worries about the upkeep. They’ll only receive a plush representation of the living creature. The size of the toy increases with the generosity of the donation.    

Other ways to give socially responsible gifts go beyond just buying something from a nonprofit. Consider patronizing a “B Corp.,” a for-profit company that’s certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social environmental performance, accountability and transparency. Active wear maker Patagonia and Prosperity Candle are among those that make the grade. For a full list, go to bcorporation.net.