Justin Alexander and Jenny Elliott like to say their marriage is the most normal part of their relationship – and that’s saying quite a lot considering some of the items they requested as gifts on their wedding registry.

Thirty sheep and goats.

Donations to pay for the wedding of a Palestinian refugee.

Money for medical aid for Iraqi children.

It might seem that Alexander and Elliott, who fell in love while working with the United Nations in the West Bank, have a one-of-a-kind wedding registry, an altruistic gift list that does not include a single request for place settings or Tupperware. But statistics show they are just one couple among thousands leading a burgeoning multimillion-dollar trend: using a ceremony that celebrates love as a way to help those caught in the grip of poverty, violence or war.

“For us, gifts just didn’t matter,” said Elliott, 24. “It was important for our wedding to reflect the people, places and values that are important to us.”

Wedding registries devoted at least in part to charity began to gain notice within the wedding-planning industry several years ago. The trend started small, with just a fraction of a percent of the millions of Americans who marry each year choosing to use such registries.

Though no statistics reflect precisely how many couples nationwide are choosing philanthropic wedding registries, one of the largest organizations to facilitate such registries reports skyrocketing numbers.

The I Do Foundation, a nonprofit group started in 2000 by a handful of young men and women awed by how much money their friends were spending on lavish weddings, has raised nearly $1.7 million for charity in the last four years. Some $1.1 million of that came in the last year alone.

“Weddings are huge, big, terrific affairs,” said Bethany Robertson, the executive director of I Do. “But more and more couples see that giving to the charities of their choice is a way to really personalize their wedding. They often come to see that this says more about who they are than the table setting they choose or the way their cake turns out.”

Observers attribute this trend to a number of factors. For example, wedding gifts, traditionally given to help couples outfit their first home, are often not needed because so many people today are entering into their second marriage or marrying older and after having already lived together for some time.

“They just don’t need pots and pans,” Robertson said.

Yet not everyone loves the trend. Etiquette experts have long frowned on couples asking for money from their wedding guests.

Alison Blackman Dunham, the advice maven and online columnist who writes as Advice Sister Alison, includes this tip on her Web site: “You can certainly suggest that people make a donation to your favorite charity in lieu of gifts, but to insist that they do so is akin to asking them to pay a fee to participate in your wedding as a guest.”

Elliott acknowledges worrying that some relatives would be less than enthused about using an online registry where their credit card was billed with the promise the money would go to a far-off charity. So she and Alexander decided to compromise by giving family and friends another option: to help them out with their honeymoon. Although the couple listed their charitable choices as the top three items on their thebigday.com wedding registry, they also asked guests to give them a night at the St. Lucia hotel where they planned to honeymoon or scuba and windsurfing lessons.

“We wanted to give people the option of doing something more traditional,” Elliott said. “But we’ve been really amazed at how people not just of our generation but our parents’ generation have taken to the idea of giving to charitable causes.”

Indeed, the couple’s registry thus far has netted some $600 for Iraqi children’s medical care, nearly $300 to help with their Palestinian friend’s wedding and more than $200 for sheep and goats to be given to needy families throughout the third world.

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The I Do Foundation estimates that 10 percent of people planning weddings are now working some form of charity fundraising into their events. One small example is a fad being seen at wedding receptions: instead of giving guests traditional wedding favors, couples are placing notes near guests’ seats informing them that a charitable donation has been made in their honor.

Robertson said the steep uptick in couples using weddings as a fundraising tool has coincided with tragic news events such as the devastating tsunami in Asia in December 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans last year.

“During times of crisis like that, we’ve seen the choices of charities on wedding registries really reflect the news of the day,” she said.

There are few industries considered to be as “viral” – the marketing term for causing almost overnight multiplication of a trend – as the wedding industry. Conde Nast Bridal Group, which publishes bridal magazines, estimates that some 2.3 million Americans will get married this year, accompanied by 23 million bridesmaids and groomsmen and some 380 million wedding guests. That’s an extraordinary number of people being exposed to whatever is the biggest trend of the wedding day, be it dresses in colors other than white, destination weddings or charitable wedding registries.

Heifer International is an Arkansas-based nonprofit organization aimed at ending world hunger by training people in the developing world in sustainable agriculture techniques. The group gives families sheep, goats, cows and other animals in the hopes of helping them build a herd that can sustain them physically and economically.

Last fall, Heifer started offering online registries for people who wanted to use a special occasion – graduation, birthday, anniversary, wedding – to encourage friends and family to donate to the charity. Dave Patterson, the organization’s new media director, said that of the several thousand registries started since then, “a significant portion” have been wedding registries.

“These are people who are thinking, “I don’t need another toaster,”‘ Patterson said. “They look at our registry and realize that they can give people the option of giving to a cause where we can say, “If you give this amount of money, this is what is going to happen to a real family somewhere in the world.”‘

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Corporate marketers have been quick to jump on board this registry trend. Take, for example, registry giants such as Macy’s, Target and Linens-N-Things, all of which have partnered with the I Do Foundation and now promise to give back up to 8 percent of the amount spent on a couple’s wedding gifts to the charity of that couple’s choice.

“This kind of partnership works out well for everyone,” I Do’s Robertson said. “The couple feels good about the buying decisions they are making because they know some of it is going toward causes in which they believe. The charities benefit. And the corporate partners earn what often becomes the lifelong loyalty of a pair of consumers.”

For Elliott and Alexander, the idea of a registry that didn’t result in boxes of Crock-Pots and bake wear has made all the sense in the world. Though they plan to live for a while in London – Alexander is British – they hope in the next couple years to return to the Middle East and their humanitarian work.

“Our lifestyle doesn’t really allow us to have a lot of things that we have to move from here to there,” said Alexander, 28, who has worked with the United Nations in the West Bank and Iraq. “The life we lead is rather transient, and it has allowed us to realize that we are not really the ones in need.”



(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEDDING-PHILANTHROPY

AP-NY-07-21-06 0609EDT


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