Donate My Fruitcake to Charity

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My friend Jessica Kutash, a marketing exec at a consumer products company, writes:

Several vendors with whom I do business have recently sent me my token ‘thanks for doing business with us’ holiday/end-of-year gifts. Normally these gifts are trinkets or candy. I quite like trinkets and candy. This year, however, I am seeing a new kind of gift: donations made to charities in ‘my’ name in lieu of the trinket. I’m not sure how I feel about this trend. On one hand, it’s nice to donate to charities. On the other hand, these are not charities that I’ve picked, so I don’t feel a strong connection to them. One of them was a charity I don’t even really believe in at all. Also I miss my trinkets and candy–does that make me a Scrooge?

Corporate gifting is tricky. There’s a legion of consultants claiming to help corporate clients avoid gifting gaffes et cetera. In Japan, the year-end gift between businesses constitutes an art form and a multimillion-dollar industry.

But giving in my name to a charity? I’d never heard of that, at least not in the realm of the workplace. (I admit I considered the idea briefly this year for my herd of over-indulged nieces and nephews, but I knew my siblings would stone me. Maybe next year.)

At Jessica’s office, the holidays used to mean bins of popcorn, buckets of chocolate-covered pretzels, baskets of pretty fruit. There were useful trinkets like pens and mugs emblazoned with company logos.

This year, though, Jessica has yet to receive a single box of bonbons. What she has gotten are cards from vendors cheerily informing her of donations made in her name to charities of their choice.

It’s the choice of charity Jessica questions. One vendor elected to give to an organization that provides video-game monitors to terminally ill children. “I have to be honest,” she says. “My God, that’s a terrible situation–a sick child–but I don’t know that I’d spend my money buying them more TVs. So not only don’t I get my chocolate, but I’m making a gift to these kids that I wouldn’t have picked.”

What else is there for bed-bound children, I ask–books? “I would have approved of books,” she says. “Or bedside jugglers. Or traveling minstrels.”

I wondered about the extent of this trend. After a little digging, I came across a company in Phoenix called David and Sam PR that has a similar campaign. The proprietors e-mailed 150 clients and contacts–including a law firm, radio show and hospitality consultant–asking if for their holiday gift they would prefer a) a fruitcake or b) a donation to one of three local charities, says Sam Alpert, a co-founder. Of about 100 responses, none so far have opted for dessert.

By the time they launched their own firm about a year ago, Alpert and David Eichler, his partner, were already discussing their charity-over-fruitcakes idea. “In most agencies, any time the holidays come around, it’s like, What do we do–do the clients like wine, assortments of food, stationery, nice pens?” says Alpert, 27. “In this industry, it’s always about gifts. That’s so boring. We wanted to do something different.”

Alpert hopes to donate in the four figures (“we’re still a small company,” he says, apologetically) to three charities that he or his partner have personal connections to: a local breast cancer survivor group called Bosom Buddies; a Phoenix chapter of Habitat for Humanity; and the regional Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

And what if a Grinchy–or hungry–client chooses the fruitcake? “We’d have to call them and say, What are you thinking?” Alpert says. “No–we knew nobody was going to do that. Who would want a fruitcake?”

They better keep a few in stock. In the absence of bonbons, even petrified pastries might look tempting.