When Bonnie Levine’s daughter, Jenna, was about to turn seven last fall, Levine wanted to make organizing the upcoming party easy, and she wanted to impart a lesson on the importance of doing good.
Levine had just become the first chief ambassador for Quebec and Eastern Canada for ECHOage, an online birthday party service that encourages donations to charities.
ECHOage was founded in 2008 by Torontonians Alison Smith and Debbie Zinman, a former Montrealer, mothers who were looking for a way to avoid the endless shopping for birthday gifts, while instilling in their kids the value of philanthropy. But they didn’t want to take away the fun of the occasion by insisting that children forgo all gifts for the sake of charitable giving.
ECHOage (www.echoage.com) offers a similar service to that of other electronic invitation sites, providing cards and managing RSVPs, but with an important difference.
No presents are brought to an ECHOage party. Instead, monetary gifts are made through the website’s secure system. The birthday child and the parents must commit to donating half of the total collected to one of the dozens of registered Canadian not-for-profit organizations that have endorsed ECHOage (others are also considered if they meet certain criteria, such as benefiting children or families).
The other half of the money is kept by the birthday girl or boy.
The charities benefit not only from the contributions, but also from exposure on the ECHOage site, which also offers marketing tools to help them reach supporters, Levine said.
Donors receive tax receipts for gifts of at least $15, although some charities issue them for less.
The party hosts pay a 4.9 per cent processing fee on the half that goes to charity. Other revenue for ECHOage is derived from charities paying a premium for better placement, for example, Levine said.
In her daughter’s case, the 30 or so girls at her party gave a total of over $600. Jenna, who attends Akiva School in Montreal, turned over 50 per cent to the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation and used the rest to buy a bicycle.
Levine notes that, in this way, children gain not only an awareness of needs in the community, but also experience in handling money. She adds that the ECHOage parties are environmentally friendly, eliminating the paper that would otherwise be used for invitations and wrapping. It also eliminates the inevitable waste of getting presents the child does not want, she said.
Over its five-year history, use of the ECHOage site has raised nearly $2.5 million for more than 250 charities in Canada and the United States, Levine said.
The service is well established in Toronto, Western Canada and many American cities, she said, and, although it has only been promoted in Montreal for a few months, already 100 such parties have been held in the city.
Quite a few Jewish community and Israel-based causes are partners, and more from Montreal are being added as Levine spreads the word.
Among them are at least five Toronto Jewish day schools and Jewish Family & Child; Mazon Canada; Save a Child’s Heart; Na’amat Canada; Kadimah, Ramah, B’nai Brith and Harry Bronfman Y Camps; Ve’ahavta; Canadian Shaare Zedek Hospital Foundation; Forever Chai Foundation of Canada; Kfar Yeladim David; One Family; and Montreal’s Mada Community Centre.
In December, ECHOage expanded its service to include bar/bat mitzvahs and events for adults, whether birthdays, anniversaries or retirement parties. With grown-up parties, anywhere from 50 to 100 per cent of the gifts collected may be directed to the selected charity.
Being an ECHOage ambassador has been an ideal way for Levine, who also has a four-year-old daughter, to re-enter the work force, combining her interests in business and community.
She holds a bachelor of commerce degree from McGill University and an MBA from HEC Montréal, and worked as a management consultant in Chicago for five years before returning to her native city.
Levine points out that her daughter and her daughter’s friend, also in Grade 2 and celebrating a seventh birthday, were not passive recipients. They both worked to raise money for their favourite causes and to buy something they really wanted.
“This is the power of ECHOage – putting kids in the driver’s seat and empowering them to play a more significant role in giving back. What better way than on the occasion of their birthday to say to the world that they want to see things happen in a better way and to do something meaningful,” she said.