Charities cash in on kids' giftless birthday bashes

Farah Wilson and Chelsea Wagner turned three this week, and to celebrate, the birthday girls had a big party in Ottawa where they didn't open any presents — because their friends were asked not to bring any.

Farah Wilson and Chelsea Wagner turned three this week, and to celebrate, the birthday girls had a big party in Ottawa where they didn't open any presents — because their friends were asked not to bring any.

Instead, their families took part in a growing trend, asking the party goers to donate the money they would have spent on a gift to charity.

Allison Philpot (left) said not all parents were comfortable with her request not to bring presents to the birthday party for her daughter Farah Wilson (centre) and her daughter's friend Chelsea Wagner (right). ((CBC))

"I thought it was a great opportunity for us to show our kids at a young age about social responsibility and how to share and make a difference in the world," said Chelsea's mother, Lori Wagner.

Wagner and Alison Philpot, Farah's mother, asked parents to make the donation through a website called Echoage, which collects online donations for a national charity chosen by the birthday boy or girl from a list of three:

  • Evergreen, which helps schools create gardens.
  • Camp Oochigeas, for children who have cancer.
  • Second Harvest, which provides fresh food to agencies that feed hungry families.

Fifteen per cent of the donations go toward administering the site, half of the remainder goes to the charity, and the other half goes toward a single gift for the birthday child.

The website was started last fall by Debbie Zinman and Alison Smith of Toronto, two mothers who thought gift-giving at children's birthday parties was out of hand, taxing both the environment and parents, who were compelled to troll through toy stores before each festive event.

"Echoage offers a really easy solution [to] that problem of too many gifts arriving at the party, too many duplicate gifts, too many gifts that the child may not want or need and an inability to appreciate the gifts because there are too many," said Zinman, whose website also helps e-mail invitation and thank-you cards.

Echoage co-founder Debbie Zinman said the website prevents children from receiving too many gifts they can't appreciate. ((CBC))

She said the site has already helped organize 300 parties across Canada and the U.S.

The three charities supported by Echoage aren't the only ones benefiting from the trend toward gift-free parties.

Peter Tilley, executive director of the Ottawa Food Bank, said several families show up each month with food they collected at children's birthday parties in lieu of presents.

Staff give the birthday child a tour to show them how their food makes it to a sorting table on the way to the dinner table of a needy family, he said.

"We show them that … they've made a difference in the life of another child, perhaps in a less fortunate family than theirs," he said.

Mixed reviews from parents

Aside from the lack of presents, Farah and Chelsea's birthday party was like any other — they wore special birthday crowns, blew out candles, ate cake and played games.

But Philpot admitted the present-less party concept wasn't a hit with all parents of her daughter's guests.

Londea Watson said her daughter Alora, 8, chose to have presents at her birthday party. ((CBC))

"We've had some people that think its wonderful and support the idea and are happy to give to charity instead of giving gifts and we've had some people who are uncomfortable with not giving a gift to each kid," she said.

Many families, like that of eight-year-old Alora Watson, still opt for traditional parties with lots of presents that are stripped of their colourful wrappings by the birthday boy or girl as their excited friends crowd around.

Alora's mother, Londea Watson, said she believes very few kids would choose to donate to charity on their own or even come up with the idea. She let the birthday girl decide what kind of party she wanted.

"This was her choice," Watson said. "This is her special day. I'm going to give her what she wants."