A Better Place for All Those Gift Cards
By heather meikle
January 4, 2012
Most likely, Christmas brought you an assortment of gift cards last week—and most likely, they’ll sit in your wallet for months, seeing sporadic use or none at all. But what if you could use them for something beyond a cup of coffee or another DVD?
Gift Card Giver started when four friends had the idea to collect used and unused gift cards from their friends at a party and redistribute them to people in need. At their first event they walked away with $50, and in the five years since, that number has ballooned to more than $130,000 in gift cards given to people in need.
The concept is simple: Many people have half-used gift cards with small, leftover amounts they’ll probably never spend—a staggering $8 billion goes unused on gift cards in America each year. Gift Card Giver collects these unused cards and repurposes them.
How exactly does your 86 cents to a home goods store do any good? It just takes a little imagination. Starbucks gift cards can purchase coffee and pastries for a homeless shelter; 100 Target gift cards under $1 can afford a single mother groceries for a week; even Victoria’s Secret cards can be a benefit, giving disadvantaged children the opportunity to buy their mothers lotion or perfume for Mother’s Day.
“When we first started, it was in a down economy,” says Gift Card Giver founder Jeff Shinabarger. “A lot of nonprofits were asking, 'How do you fundraise when no one is giving right now?’ It's not that people don't want to give in down times, it's just that they need creative ways to give. We have this premise that out of our excess, we can address the issues of need and suffering.”
Gift Card Giver asks people to use as much of a new gift card as they want (or send a full card), write how much is left on the card with a permanent marker and place the card in an envelope to be sent to Atlanta for distribution. Once the card arrives it’s sorted, combined and given toward a project, person or organization that can best use the card for a significant and specific need. Shinabarger says that even when a use for a group of cards isn’t immediately obvious, a purpose almost always presents itself.
“We got all these phone cards in the mail one time. There was an organization in Kansas City that had just rescued 40 children from a sex trafficking situation. I remember I got a call saying: 'Hey, do you have any phone cards? We want to reunite these kids with their parents all over the world.’ We were able to respond the next day. They got the phone cards and they started making calls to their parents. That was one of the most humbling stories to ever be a part of."
Last year, inspired after receiving a $96 gift card to high-end steakhouse Ruth’s Chris, Gift Card Giver launched a Twitter project aimed at giving back to the leaders of non-profits. They asked Twitter followers to nominate leaders of non-profit organizations for Gift Card Giver to pay for a date out for them and their spouse. They created date nights for the couples and sent out letters with Applebee’s gift cards and movie vouchers to the recipients. “They do the hard work every day,” Shinabarger says. “They definitely deserve a night out. They were pretty overwhelmed, it was kind of a surprise blessing.”
As you would imagine, January is an especially busy time for the organization as people sort through their holiday presents. “People always get the gift cards for Christmas, and then they use a little bit the day after Christmas. We usually have big collections in January,” Shinabarger says.
One of the unique ways Gift Card Giver has found to collect cards is through their house party program, where volunteers around the country host gift card collection parties in their homes. A “bouncer” at the door collects gift cards as entry, and guests play different card games—Slapjack, Cheat and Hearts are among the activities on the official game guide—throughout the night. “People do the parties and on average get $10 a head. So if you get 20 people there, you're going to raise about $200,” Shinabarger says.
But perhaps the most unique thing about Gift Card Giver is its universal appeal. The program makes giving manageable for everyone, regardless of age or income.
“You could tell someone that's 16 years old or 65 years old—they all have [gift cards],” Shinabarger says. “The idea clicks with people so fast, and they just want to contribute. When it really comes down to it, we have the opportunity to help some people who are really in great need at the most important time in their lives. That's a pretty priceless thing to be a part of.”
Learn more about Gift Card Giver.