Last year, after a fire destroyed their Grant Park house, a family of 10 got hot meals and clothing from an unlikely source: gift cards that are usually tucked away or forgotten.
That emergency was one of many needs that Plywood People—a Cabbagetown nonprofit that promotes socially conscious entrepreneurs—has met during the past six years with its Gift Card Giver program. With thousands of gift cards mailed in from all 50 states, Plywood People has donated more than $200,000 to people in need.
Jeff Shinabarger, Plywood People’s executive director, was inspired to create the service in 2008 after he challenged a table of strangers at a wedding to search their pockets and purses for old gift cards. The experiment netted $52. Americans leave $1 billion on cards annually; the industry dubs this “spillage.”
Leftover balances on donated cards are often less than $5 (the record donation was $150 at West Elm), but the piddling sums add up. Bundled by brand, the cards have provided coats and toys to children, meals to nonprofit volunteers, and phone cards to sex-trafficking victims trying to reunite with their families.
The most coveted cards: Target and Walmart, where “you can really help a lot of people—anything from toys to clothes to home goods,” says Shinabarger.
Gift Card Giver is run like a foundation, making grants to applicants who fill out request forms and provide references. Awards are made in June and December, though occasional emergency grants are made during the year, as in the case of the fire.
Although the concept is brilliant in its simplicity, administering the program is not easy. Cards stream into the group’s P.O. box, and the value of each has to be verified and managed before grants are made. “Other people have tried to copy us,” Shinabarger says, “but honestly, within about a year, they end up sending us all of their gift cards.”
18% of holiday giving will be done via gift cards by 2015
$118 billion: Amount loaded on gift cards in 2013
In the U.S., the annual consumption of gift cards exceeds the gross domestic product of 136 countries.
This article originally appeared in our December 2014 issue.