The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Charities will reap benefits of entrepreneur’s latest venture

Mother’s Day is Sunday, a celebration that began 40 years ago as a heralding of love and duty that has become a multibillion-dollar business. According to the National Retail Federation, Mother’s Day gift sales this year will reach an estimated $23.6 billion.

Myron Levine, a Sag Harbor resident who is an entrepreneur and philanthropist, wants to change all that. “Gifts purchased during holidays like these are done out of an obligation rather than passion,” he said this week. The retail federation backs up his claim with numbers from other holidays: Father’s Day accounts for approximately $15 billion in gifts, Valentine’s Day for $18 million, and an estimated $123 billion is spent for gifts during the winter holidays.

“Gifts sales, mostly bought out of a sense of duty, exceed $1 trillion per year,” he said. “Whereas charitable donations made by individuals and businesses add up to $375 billion a year.”

On May 3, Mr. Levine launched Donorsunite.org, an online site with a mission statement that reads, “To provide a unique and affordable way for individuals and businesses to support millions of charities and local communities, with a customizable charity gift card for any occasion.”

Mr. Levine, who has founded and worked with multiple nonprofit organizations, including All for the East End, which he began to help the 1,000-plus nonprofits on the East End, said he had to find a way to tap into “the huge pot of money” spent on gifts and bring those dollars over to charitable donations.

Mr. Levine’s concept is simple: Add Donors Unite to the equation of gift-giving. Then, instead of buying, say, a scarf for Mother’s Day, you can send a charity gift card, in which you can donate money to her favorite charity or she can pick one for herself.

The website allows donors to search for charities by ZIP code or an organization’s name. Using Guidestar, the world’s largest database of nonprofit companies, every known charity in the United States is listed on Donors Unite. For a minimum of $10 a donor can buy a gift card for a specific charity, customize a design, and then present the card by email or in person. Cards can be digital, instantly printed, or ordered in packs to use over time.

This, believes Mr. Levine, will enable small charities, especially local neighborhood causes, to gain more visibility. People are also more likely to donate to an organization that helps within the community rather than those with international scope, he said.

Helping the community has always been a part of Mr. Levine’s life. Even as a successful founder of an interstate freight company, sold to a hedge fund manager in 2008, he was actively involved with the Peconic Public Broadcasting Corporation and Southampton College. However, in 2010 tragedy struck when Mr. Levine’s 35-year-old son, Joshua Levine, died in a tractor accident at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, where he was a manager. Suddenly, Mr. Levine and his family were on the receiving end of the community’s good will.

“The community was so supportive,” he said. “People were bringing food, sitting vigil through the nights, helping with Josh’s widow and their two small children. It was like being in Mayberry from ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’ ” Eventually, he said, “I knew I had to find a way to pay back this incredible community we live in.”

Mr. Levine began to notice the discrepancy between charitable donations and gift giving. “While corporate companies donated $18 billion a year to charities, they spent $88 billion in corporate gifts, events, and premium items. I just knew there had to be a better way to reallocate those dollars spent on gifts,” he said.

With no experience in technology, Mr. Levine, 75, set about finding funding and hired a web-building team. He said he worked tirelessly for four years until Donors Unite went live last week.

He believes his company will revolutionize the way people give to charity. The next phase, he hopes, will be gift registries for people who would rather give to charity than accumulate things. He also is aiming for small  shifts in how people think about gifts, explaining that even a one 100th of 1 percent increase in donations rather than for gifts would result in nearly $1 billion. “And I believe most of this new money will go to smaller, local charities,”  he said.

One woman who would surely approve of Mr. Levine’s new venture is the mother of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia, who lobbied the government for such a day until it became official, in 1914. She then spent the next 40 years fighting its commercialization, saying, “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit.”