New types of loyalty shopping programs created over the past year allow consumers to do just that. But are these programs, some of which are either based in Utah or do business here, really that good of a deal for consumers and charities?
They can be. But they also can be an even better deal for their promoters.
"Many of these programs are businesses - they are there to make money," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the charity watchdog group the American Institute of Philanthropy. "There's no guarantee that they are even going to do what they say they are going to do."
Here's how they work: Consumers enroll, typically at no cost, and select one or more charities they would like to benefit. Each time they make a purchase at a participating company, such as Target and Verizon Wireless, that company will pay the loyalty shopping program a percentage of the sale, typically ranging from 1 percent to
Companies also may pay a periodic fee to the loyalty program for the privilege of being included in the program and being marketed as a company that gives back to charity.
The loyalty program then contributes a portion of the money it collects from corporations to charities designated by consumers.
Some, such as Salt Lake City-based NetFundz, have programs focused on online purchases, while others, such as Connecticut-based Tricordia, focus on sales made at brick-and-mortar locations.
Businesses like such programs because they encourage people to buy more from them. Charities love them because they can get more money.
And consumers enjoy the idea of a donation being made in their name - without having to actually donate any money themselves.
But what many consumers don't realize is that such programs are for-profit ventures and that only a portion of the money collected from corporations by these groups actually goes to charity.
Take NetFundz Alliance in Salt Lake City. The loyalty shopping program, which debuted earlier this month, claims that 100 percent of contributions made by companies affiliated with their organization go to charity.
Not quite. NetFundz actually splits corporate contributions between two entities - a nonprofit Netfundz Alliance Foundation and a for-profit NetFundz LLC. Company officials acknowledge that while all of the contributions based on consumer purchases that pass through the foundation go to charity, additional fees collected from corporations go to Netfundz's for-profit arm.
So how much of the total amount of money the NetFundz entities receive actually goes to charity? No one except company officials may ever know for sure.
"It's difficult to put a number on," said Chad Fox, NetFundz Alliance president, adding that "fair compensation is paid to the for-profit" for marketing the program.
Although the exact percentage given to charities remains unknown, charities are hopeful NetFundz and other groups like it will raise a substantial amount of cash.
"It's a great concept," said Robyn Nelson, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Arts Festival, at a recent event sponsored by NetFundz. "Every little bit helps."
NetFundz isn't the only loyalty program with its eye on the Utah market. Although it is based in Connecticut, Tricordia is focusing its efforts on Salt Lake City and two other markets - Albuquerque and Seattle - as it rolls out its program nationwide.
Under the Tricordia program, each time consumers buy a product or service from an affiliated business, that business pays a small fee to the organization - usually 2 percent to 20 percent of the amount purchased.
RaDene Hatfield, of Provo, enrolled last May to try to raise money for the Timpview High School Marching Band in Utah County. She said she has raised $50 since she enrolled by shopping at retailers affiliated with Tricordia.
Hatfield said she has tried to buy from merchants participating in the Tricordia network, such as Target online, whenever possible.
"It has changed the way I shop."
John F. Sickles, founder, managing partner and CEO of Tricordia, said his organization passes on about 50 percent of what it receives from businesses to charities on the behalf of consumers.
He said Tricordia was costly to set up and that even though his organization gets half of the donations, he's still losing money.
"People ask us why we are giving only 50 percent of the money away, and I tell them as soon as we get profitable, the percentage that goes to charity will go up."
Tricordia operates similarly to NetFundz. The two focus on different segments of shoppers, however. Netfundz focuses on purchases and bills paid for online. Tricordia has some online merchants, but also has a network of 200 merchants along the Wasatch Front that have agreed to make donations on behalf of consumers who make purchases at their locations, including Iceberg Drive Inn in Salt Lake City.
Kelly Christensen, chief executive of Iceberg Drive Inn, recently joined Tricordia and contributes 2 percent of the purchase price of meals paid by two locations and any other franchisees who wish to be part of the program.
He said when he was first presented with the concept of loyalty shopping, he was wary.
"We felt we thoroughly investigated the concept, and we'll see how it goes," he said.
Charity watchdog Borochoff said he, too, will be watching how these programs evolve.
He said in theory, because consumers aren't actually making cash donations, there is little risk of consumers getting scammed.
But a lot of money probably will be flowing through these organizations in the coming years. And with little oversight, there are a number of risks, he said.
"There's a risk that hardly anything will go to charity. And because consumers can select among so many charities, there is a risk that it will help a number of charities only minimally."
He said these programs also could encourage some consumers to buy things they wouldn't otherwise buy or shop at merchants that charge a higher price just so a donation is made in their name.
Borochoff also warns that consumers will think such donations are tax-deductible. They aren't.
The bottom line? "You should not necessarily be swayed by these programs when you're buying something," he said. "My advice is to shop around, get a product or service at the best price possible and donate any money you save to charity and get the tax deduction yourself."
How loyalty shopping programs work
* Consumers enroll and select one or more charities they would like to benefit.
* Each time they make a purchase at a participating store, that store will pay the loyalty shopping company a percentage of the sale, typically 1 percent to 20 percent.
* Stores may pay a fee to the loyalty company for the privilege of being included in the program and being marketed as a company that gives back to charity.
* The loyalty program company then contributes a portion of the money it collects from corporations to charities designated by consumers.