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The Gift that Keeps on Giving

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Non-profit with USC ties teaches philanthropy

By Katherine Yungmee Kim
December 2004
What do you give 42 vice presidents for the holidays?

Scott Cook (B.A. Mathematics and Economics, ’74), co-founder of Intuit Inc., handed out “Giving Certificates” to his executives. At an annual holiday dinner for the financial software company that developed Quicken and Turbo Tax, Cook gave each of the Intuit vice presidents a $500 Charity Check as a year-end gift.

A Charity Check is similar to a gift certificate, except instead of being used at a retail store, they are redeemed by a handpicked charity. As the Charity Checks website claims, “With a gift certificate, you can buy goods; with a giving certificate, you can do good.”

To boot, Charity Checks are tax-deductible.

“It’s a new channel for charitable giving,” says Cook, who also donated $20,000 to launch the pilot program.  “It’s the classic innovation—for virtually no economic cost, you cause an additional flow of involvement and dollars…all going to charities of people’s choices.”

Charity Checks, Inc. is a non-profit organization run by husband-and-wife team Victor Dorff and Lisa Sonne. Dorff (B.A. Mathematics, ’76, M.A. Broadcast Journalism, ’92) says he came up with the idea while sifting through piles of junk mail from charities he had donated to in the past. He wanted to be able to continue his philanthropy, but not be hounded for it.

With Charity Checks, donations can be given anonymously. No paper trail, no home address sold to mailing lists. You buy a Giving Certificate, offered in fixed increments—$25, $50, $100, etc—and give them as gifts to someone who can decide where the money will go. Giving Certificates are valid for up to six months.

Over 850,000 non-profits in the United States are eligible to cash in Charity Checks. All that is required is that the group of choice must be registered as an IRS-approved tax-exempt 501 (c)(3) organization.

Making it easier to find a payee, the Charity Checks website offers a “Resource Center” that searches organizations by cause through links to charity portals.

“Many of the Giving Certificates are redeemed by one of the ‘big’ charities—Salvation Army, Red Cross, Cancer Society,” says Dorff. “But a surprising number go to small, local charities such as animal shelters and domestic violence centers.”

Sonne says it has been fascinating to learn about the multitude of groups that exist. She mentioned one foundation that helps couples that want to adopt children and another started by a family that was concerned about the welfare of unwanted bunnies after Easter.

The Giving Certificates have been mostly used as business and personal gifts, but they are also classroom tools. Dorff, who teaches math at Newbury Park High School and California Lutheran University, and Sonne launched the “Charitable Literacy” program, helping students learn thoughtful lessons on the merits of philanthropy.

Cook and Dorff were both math majors at the College, and Sonne grew up in a “fiercely Trojan” household—her mother was Miss Trojanality and her father taught English in the College as a grad student. But Dorff attests to the subtlety of the USC link.

“I am certain that my connection with USC had a lot to do with the way I was welcomed into the family,” Dorff mentions. “And without my marriage to Lisa, there would be no Charity Checks or Charitable Literacy.”

For more information on how to purchase Charity Checks, please contact 1-800-854-5601 or visit