'Charity Checks' Make a Gift of Giving to Others

Times Staff Writer

The way Eric Weir was anticipating receipt of a $25 check, it could have been $25,000. The 14-year-old Calabasas middle school student had taken weeks to figure out how he would spend the money. He researched, he pondered, he debated.

In the end, the seventh-grader gave his check away to the American Heart Assn., because "my grandpa had a stroke and they help people like him with recovery and operations."

That's the way it's supposed to be with a "Charity Check," a novel kind of gift certificate that recipients like Weir cannot spend on themselves, but instead must give to a nonprofit organization.

Weir and his classmates were participants in the education component of the Charity Check organization, a nonprofit group started by an Agoura Hills couple looking for a convenient way to make anonymous donations to their favorite charities.

Co-founder Victor Dorff, 49, said he was going through a pile of mail one day, frustrated by the stack of charitable solicitations he had received from groups that he had donated to in the past and others that had probably purchased his personal information from a database.

"I got to thinking it would really be great to be able to make a donation, get the tax deduction, but not tell them who you are or where you are," said Dorff, a journalist and high school math teacher.

About five years ago, Dorff's philanthropic idea made its way through a mutual contact to Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit, the maker of Quicken and TurboTax. Cook gave about $20,000 for the group's start-up costs and an additional $21,000 for the first Charity Checks. He gave the checks as $500 holiday gifts to his corporate executives.

"It was like someone handed me something that I could do something nice with," said Brooks Fisher, vice president of Learning and Development for Mountain View-Calif.-based Intuit. Fisher gave his check to the special education school that his daughter attends. "I can't remember anything I got that year for Christmas, but I remember vividly this gift."

The way it works is that a donor pays Charity Checks for a giving certificate that looks similar to a household check. A postage fee of between $5 and $15 is charged, depending on the check order. The person who makes the purchase can claim it as a tax-deductible donation.

The value on the Charity Check is a fixed amount -- typically $25, $50, $100, up to $500. The "pay to the order of" line is blank. The recipient writes the check out to any one of the nation's more than 800,000 nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations as defined in the Internal Revenue Code. Only qualified non-profit groups can redeem the check.

Dorff and his wife, Lisa Sonne, 47, run the organization from their home and do not draw a salary from Charity Checks, according to the organization's IRS tax-exempt forms from 2000 through 2002. They received one-time honorariums of $5,000 each, from outright donations to the organization. The donations cover the cost of processing the checks.

In the five years since the couple launched the organization, their original purpose -- preserving donor privacy -- has taken on a myriad of facets as they said their venture has grown from a $45,000-a-year operation to one handling more than $100,000.

In some cases, corporate executives, weary of costly and often under-appreciated fruit or food baskets, have given their employees or clients a Charity Check instead. Parents, who knew that their children had all the material things they needed, gave them a check that had to be given away.

"For us, it's given our daughters the chance to think about what matters most to them," said David Lockhart, 53, who splits his time between homes in Santa Monica and Great Barrington, Mass. "It's the whole notion of stewardship. What do I care enough about to give this to? You move out of yourself and into the wider community and start thinking about needs."

Lockhart's daughter, Abby, 23, said that when she received her first Charity Check four years ago, she didn't know quite what to do with it. "But then I started to research and learned that there were so many nonprofit organizations that needed help." She has given her $150 checks to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, in memory of a friend who died of cancer, and to other medical research organizations.

"I think because of this, charitable giving will always be a part of life," she said.

One woman gave out 50 $25 Charity Checks to her friends to celebrate the new year, a fresh twist on holiday giving.

"We all have too much stuff," said Janine Smith, 49, a Brentwood writer. "And this is so much more personal than me writing a check to my favorite charity on behalf of someone."

Students such as Weir, who attends A.E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas, are part of a "charitable literacy" program that Dorff and Sonne hope will become an increasingly important part of their organization.

Last spring, Calabasas-based Countrywide Financial Corp. donated $5,000 to Charity Checks to launch a pilot education program at four schools in which students from one class each received a $25 check after learning about the role of philanthropy in America.

Ruth Kritz, the computer technology teacher at Wright Middle School, volunteered to help develop curriculum for the first batch of classes.

Using computer-aided research and techniques, students identified a charity of their choice, put together a PowerPoint presentation about it and learned how to type a proper business letter when they corresponded with their charity. Their donations reflected their own personal experiences.

Sean Matrura, 13, said he gave to youth programs affiliated with the Magic Johnson Foundation "so that inner-city kids can have a safe place to do things." His classmate Val Neminov, 14, who learned about the rain forest in another class, gave his check to the Tropical Rainforest Coalition "because I want to save an acre."

Neminov said he first learned about giving at home, watching his parents send money every month to relatives in Russia. His Charity Check was the first time he was able to make a personal contribution. "It makes you realize that you can do some sort of good. Gifts don't all have to be about yourself."

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