Hollywood's Etiquette Experts on How to Choose a Charitable Holiday Gift

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Robert Greenblatt (left); Heifer International (right)

"We have traditionally been apolitical," says CAA Foundation's Rachel Kropa, on sending out items related to the agency's charity agenda to such high-profile agency clients as Jennifer Aniston and George Clooney. But this year, the talk "has been a lot about taking action."

When it comes to holiday charitable giving, authenticity and knowing your audience are key. Nicole Pollard, founder of lifestyle concierge service LaLaLuxe, asks clients to think about who the recipient is. "Some people really enjoy politically charged gifts, while others would be insulted," she says. If unsure, "stay away from donations that are politically one-sided," says etiquette expert and Beverly Hills Manners CEO Lisa Gache.

Gifting at a corporate level is even trickier. "The holidays are a wonderful time to be thinking as a company what your values are and to express them in that action," says Participant Media’s chief impact officer Holly Gordon. Participant has supported the NRDC, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund in the past. Gordon goes on to say that it's important to have this conversation as a company: "Let’s think about what our values are and make our choice accordingly." The CAA Foundation sends out items to such high-profile clients as Jennifer Aniston and George Clooney that represent the agency's charitable agenda (in 2012, FEED tote bags benefiting Feeding America's Whole Food Program). CAA's Rachel Kropa and Natalie Tran start planning in June. "It's a collaborative process with a lot of decision-making within the foundation and our design team," says Tran. Clients sometimes pitch ideas. "This year [the talk] has been a lot about taking action," says Kropa, who adds that the foundation tries to be sensitive to people's views. "We have traditionally been apolitical," but Kropa says that this year's gift will be more political "in a civic-engagement sense."

If looking for a safe bet, know that "people love animals, families in need and children, [who] pull at the heartstrings more than the environment," says Gache. NBC Entertainment head Bob Greenblatt favors donating to Heifer International (Heifer.org): "This year, I'm gifting all of my direct reports cows, to give communities around the world the resources they need to self-sustain," he says. Other nonprofits that fit in the "safe" category, according to experts: the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (to which Marvel has contributed) and Children's Hospital L.A. (Gotham Group pays for up to 10 families' holiday expenses). DonorsChoose.org lets individuals donate directly to public school projects (Facebook has given gift cards, and Stephen Colbert hands them out to audience members).

In terms of how much to give, experts cite a $25 to $250 per person range, depending on the size of the recipient list. Above all, do the homework. Says Gache: "Focus on a group likely to have the greatest impact and on where your contribution actually goes." 

Pollard advises clients to give back instead of give big: "Besides the feel-good effect of helping others, it is a time of year when the excess of holiday giving in Hollywood makes even the most exotic gifts forgettable." Iconic actress Marlo Thomas, who is also the national outreach director of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, agrees with that sentiment. (Jimmy Kimmel, Sofia Vergara and Michael Strahan are among the stars who promote St. Jude’s Thanks and Giving fundraising campaign during the holiday season.) "My father, Danny Thomas, always said, 'There are two types of people in this world: the givers and the takers. The takers sometimes eat better, but the givers always sleep better.'"

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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