I was interviewed last week for a piece by Kelli B. Grant at SmartMoney.com on the many, many ways that you can give through your Christmas-gift giving this season.  The idea of "giving gifts that give" is becoming hugely popular.  As Grant writes:

Roughly half of all consumers say they plan to purchase a holiday gift that supports a cause, up from 42% who planned to in 2007, according to a survey from Cone Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in cause branding. A quarter of shoppers say they plan to go further, making a donation in someone's name instead of sending a present, reports marketing firm BBMG. Experts say those gifts appeal to the thrifty because they satisfy a gift-giving requirement and support a charity at the same time – and perhaps even yield a tax break. But it's also true that companies have created more opportunities for cause-minded shoppers: Retailers and other merchants are expected to spend more than $1.5 billion to affiliate themselves with a cause this year, according to IEG, which tracks corporate sponsorship.

There is a lot to consider when giving charitable gifts that give. Grant's article is a good start.

It is also good to keep in mind that with, say, charitable gift cards a good portion of the balance on the cards is often never redeemed. In such cases, the company administering the card -- after a certain period of time passes -- donates the unused portion of the gift card to a charity of their choice, not yours. That may be fine with many donors. For others, it is a good idea to see where the unused portion of the charitable gift card ends up if it is not used up by the gift recipient.

I was also surprised to learn that with many charitable gift cards, the company administering the card may not actually payout distributions to the charities selected by the gift recipient for as many as 90 days.  This makes sense: charitable gift card companies don't want to make distributions for every $5 donation that comes in, they would rather pool the distributions and pay them at once. Presumably there is a transaction cost with every distribution. This is, in other words, not the fault of the charitable gift card companies (some, I should add, are also nonprofits). It is simply something to keep in mind. The charities that you may be seeking to support through charitable gift cards may not actually receive their payout for weeks, even months.

I am also somewhat skeptical of cause marketing. Cause marketing works best for consumers, charities, and companies when there is a perfect alignment of interests and causes. I am still scratching my head over Kentucky Fried Chicken's buckets for breast cancer campaign. But let's set that one aside.

From the point of view of the consumer, I would argue that philanthropy or charity ought to be a conscious part of everyone's annual budgeting process. What percentage of our income do we want to give to charity this year? Discuss it. Think about it. Make a plan.  Many plan for their charitable giving when they sit down and pay their bills each month. What cause marketing does is make charitable giving less a deliberative process: its all belly and no head.  It confounds charity and consumerism, making persistent emotional appeals that often finds us purchasing things we don't need for causes we don't really know that much about or, in some cases, even care about.

Another thing to keep in mind: the easiest way to support your favorite charity or cause is simply to write them a check.

There is much more to be said about cause marketing and charitable gift giving, of course. Kelli B. Grant's advice in SmartMoney.com is a good start. You can read her entire article here.