Tom Hanchette and his wife live in a western Wisconsin valley as picturesque as storybook. Their three bright children have the family's blonde corkscrew curls. Anytime they want, they can ride the family's horses, or play on the baby grand piano.
The Hanchettes have worked very hard for their lifestyle, but a few years ago Tom was watching his kids tear through Christmas wrapping. He grew uncomfortable with the mad fury of it. He says he knew the toys would end up in the closet.
Then he thought about their birthday parties.
"And it just kind of popped in my head, wouldn't it be neat that instead of having their friends bring presents, have them name a charity that they'd like to support and have their kids bring donations to support that charity?" he says.
Hanchette says what bothered him about the presents was that it taught his children to always expect something more. So he proposed his idea, and the kids agreed. For Gretchen Hanchette's seventh birthday she asked for donations to the La Crosse Zoo's duck and badger exhibits.
"I look at some of the cages and they really don't look like a cage that it should be," she says. "It looks like it should be cleaner, or providing more ponds or something like that. "
She and her friends raised $55. But when they went to the zoo to make their donation, it was closed. No one was around to explain how the money would be spent, or how much it was needed. Her parents were a little worried the delayed gratification wouldn't work for a seven-year old. But Gretchen says it did.
"Everyone likes getting presents. But to me, this feels better," she smiles.
Hanchette says their kids still get an outfit for their birthdays, along with cake, balloons and friends over for volleyball. But there is no pile of presents.
Hanchette says their son Ben didn't want to give up his gifts. He was 10 at the time. But finally he gave in and chose Special Olympics as his charity. After the party, Tom says he took Ben to a soccer practice. The coach called a time-out and told the athletes what Ben had done.
"And they were all so thankful. They were coming up and hugging him and telling him that he's their friend," Hanchette says. "And the look on his face. That was the day it really hit me that this is really something special because he was just melting."
Hanchette wants to encourage other people to donate. He built a Web site called birthdaysforcharity.org to explain the concept. Other sites like firstgiving.com and importantgifts.org do similar things.
There's also a book called "Raising Charitable Children." National and international newspapers report the idea of birthday parties for charities is a trend.
Hanchette and his wife Bridget say they're walking a line between providing for their kids and creating consumers. Bridget Hanchette says it's like money, community and possessions have become unhealthily disconnected.
“The people who are givers as adults, if they started out doing volunteer work as a young person, there is a much higher likelihood that they will continue to be volunteers and givers as adults.”Rich Cawles, Executive Director of the Charities Review Council in Saint Paul
"We just finally started giving our kids allowance," she says. "Like if you do a bunch of chores, if you do every single one of them you get an allowance, which isn't a lot. But we talked about what you do with our allowance. Some is for charity., some is for savings and the rest is for spending. So you don't just take your whole eight dollars that you made and put it in your pocket. I try to give them the money in dollars, so they can look at it like that, like stack it up."
Another family asking for donations at birthdays and holidays are the Sjobergs in Eagan. With two children already doing it, Denise Sjoberg says last year she encouraged her eight-year-old to volunteer with her friends at Feed My Starving Children instead of holding a birthday party.
Sjoberg says in her family giving generously has always been a part of life. And realistically she adds that her upper middle class circumstances means the kids already get what they need.
"And not that they get a lot. But if they're interested in a new $8 Barbie, well you toss it in the cart and there they have it. So this concept of waiting until Christmas for special things, I don't, it doesn't happen in our family. And by looking around at my friends and neighbors I don't think it happens in theirs either."
Non-profits don't tend to pitch to middle and elementary schoolers. Actually, industry journals are praising non-profits for targeting 20 and 30-somethings.
The Executive Director of the Charities Review Council in Saint Paul Rich Cawles says most people don't start giving until late adulthood.
"The people who are givers as adults, if they started out doing volunteer work as a young person, there is a much higher likelihood that they will continue to be volunteers and givers as adults," he says. Cawles says parents and teachers aren't making the connection between being a resident in society, and being a contributor. So in 2003 his organization launched Great Givers.
It's a series of downloadable lesson plans for teachers or youth leaders that teach about needs versus wants, poverty and donations. Cawles says it's been downloaded about 200 times. He says years ago philanthropists like the Daytons, and the Rockefeller's set the tone for other to contribute to society.
"What it means to be a good citizen used to just happen," he says. "That was part of, kids grew up and they knew that. It was when we were a younger nation and it was just more on everybody's mind. It has now become something that everyone thinks happens, but people grow up and they really don't know."
It's also a relatively unknown fact that individual giving accounts for almost 80 percent of contributions to non-profits. But less than two percent of Americans' personal income typically goes to charity.
Getting children like Gretchen Hanchette to put $55 dollars in the donation box, could mean far bigger contributions in the future. That's something her parents and charities are clearly hoping will happen.