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The charitable wedding: 'I give' instead of just 'I do'

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
At Sarah Dixon and Todd Rump's wedding, wedding favor donations were made to the Wounded Warrior Project.
At Sarah Dixon and Todd Rump's wedding, wedding favor donations were made to the Wounded Warrior Project.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More couples are using their wedding day to spotlight social causes
  • WeddingChannel.com reports 650,000 couples have signed up for its charity programs
  • Couples who marry later are partly responsible for more donations
  • Couples can raise awareness through their website, a registry or on their wedding program
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(CNN) -- The collection of wedding favors stuffed into Sarah Dixon's closet includes everything from customized peppermints to a cup holder shaped like a flip-flop.

When her shining bridal moment arrived in October 2009, Dixon, 26, abandoned the cheesy wedding trinkets for a nobler cause.

She gave each guest a small bag of chocolate truffles to mark a cash donation in guests' honor to the Wounded Warriors Project, a nonprofit support group for injured veterans.

Dixon's husband, Todd Rump, 26, a sergeant for the U.S. Army, was deployed to Iraq for an eight-month stint three years ago.

"I figured it would be something for our guests to enjoy," said Dixon, whose husband will leave this week for duty with the Army in Afghanistan. "I kind of always knew I wanted to do something charitable. When it comes to favors, it's hard to choose something that won't just sit in someone's house or get thrown away."

A growing number of couples are shifting the spotlight from their weddings to socially conscious causes, wedding planners and industry experts said.

Donations in lieu of wedding favors are gaining popularity. More people are setting up charitable registries via the internet. After all, one Montana bride rationalized, what is the use of a wedding favor during hard economic times?

"It's so easy to do," said Anja Winikka, senior editor at TheKnot.com, one of the most popular wedding planning destinations online. "You have so much attention, all the love of your friends and these gifts flowing in. It inspires some couples to give something back with all eyes on them."

There are no hard rules set for donating to charities for weddings, but some wedding etiquette experts recommend couples avoid putting donation requests on the invitation. Usually, wedding websites or social media can efficiently and appropriately advocate a specific cause. Introducing the organization on a wedding program can also spread the word, they said.

Weddings may be an ideal place to gather attention for a charity. There were about 2.2 million weddings in 2009, with each event averaging 128 guests, according to The Wedding Report Inc., a research company tracking the wedding industry.

Charitable donations at weddings come in all forms. One New Jersey bride this month gave tree seeds to guests to promote environmental sustainability. A wedding next month in Minnesota will ask attendees to bring a nonperishable canned or boxed food item for the local food bank. A Louisiana couple married in March raised $850 to help rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward.

"Beyond all the humanitarian reasons, the need to rebuild the houses, our desire just to do good, there's real benefits for us in the long run," said the groom, Max Erenberg, 35, who lives near the Lower 9th Ward. "It certainly helps us having those neighborhoods back."

Quantifying the uptick in couples trying to donate during their weddings is difficult because there are few experts tracking the phenomenon. According to TheKnot.com, 4 percent of couples in 2009 had a registry connected to a charity, but the figure doesn't include guests who donate without a registry or couples who replace wedding favors with donations.

In the last few years, more organizations have emerged to cater to engaged couples wanting to donate. More than 650,000 couples since 2004 have participated in charity programs on WeddingChannel.com.

The I Do Foundation, a nonprofit group that helps engaged couples set up charitable registries, reports that about 60,000 couples have established registries through its site. When the foundation began in 2002, couples could select from a dozen charities, said Grant La Rouche, director of the foundation. Today, the agency offers more than 1.5 million nonprofit groups to choose from. Couples can also shop from selected vendors, with a portion of their spending going to a charity. The donations also are tax deductible.

"They want to share that it's a part of who they are and so much of weddings are about making it about what you love," La Rouche said.

Nonprofits are also starting to establish their own wedding gift giving programs. Heifer International, an Arkansas-based group known for donating farm animals to impoverished communities worldwide, started an alternative gift giving registry five years ago and has received thousands of donations, officials said.

Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, a hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, launched a wedding program in 2006 and sells posters and mini-place cards for couples to give to their guests when they donate, said Katie Hammett, foundation program coordinator. But Hammett said some brides still prefer a more traditional registry or favors.

"It really depends on the bride -- some brides are really into the idea, and some brides really want to go a different way," Hammett said.

The demand for charitable weddings enabled Mary Ludwig of New Hampshire to start a niche business three years ago called Truffles for a Cause. The company sells chocolates to couples, but a portion of the money goes to a charity the couple picks. The most popular charity has been the American Cancer Society, but Ludwig has had brides request donations go to organizations supporting families affected by the 9/11 attacks and local soup kitchens.

"This generation and probably the next generation -- the kids are brought up being more socially aware," Ludwig said. "They are always thinking about what we can do to save the planet, or helping people when there are earthquakes."

While a generation of generous millennials may be one reason for the jump in charitable weddings, some wedding experts said they believe charitable giving also represents a larger cultural shift in marriage. More couples are cohabitating and marrying later. For example, in 2009, the average age for a bride was 28 and the average groom's age was 30, according to a survey of 21,000 couples conducted by TheKnot.com. In 2004, the bride was 27 and the groom was 29.

"By the time they are getting married they don't need flatware, silverware and candlesticks," said wedding writer Ariel Meadow Stallings, who runs the blog OffbeatBride.com.

Valerie Manglitz, 36, who married this past month in Michigan, decided to donate to a local agency that serves deaf people. She has worked as a sign language interpreter since she was 20 years old. She hopes her giving will create a ripple effect.

"You want to lead by example," Manglitz said. "You have to show people what you're doing so hopefully they will join."

 
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