Thursday, March 4, 2010

Making kids' birthday parties eco-friendly and socially responsible

I spoke with two savvy entrepreneurs this morning about their unique eco-friendly and socially responsible birthday party business. Scroll down for my article:
Children's birthday parties are big business. Think of everything that parents buy: the invitations, the party favours, the presents... Is it all worth it?

"There is always this huge build-up to these birthday parties," says Veronica, a Vancouver mom of two. "But at the end of them, you're inevitably left with a bunch of small toys or party favours that will either break in a week or two, or be totally forgotten and thrown in the garbage. You have to wonder what kind of impact all this stuff has on the environment and what values we're teaching our kids with these commercially-driven celebrations."

Veronica isn't the only parent with this concern. Entrepreneurs Alison Smith and Debbie Zinman, both mothers in Toronto, identified this concern among parents and they did what any responsible, eco- and socially conscious parent would do: in 2008, they started a charity-driven, eco-friendly, online birthday party service called ECHOage -- and its impact has been reverberating through parent circles across North America.

"ECHOage is a website that solves the birthday party problem," explain Smith and Zinman. "Parents come to the website, choose their invitation, the charity they want their guests' donations to go to." Half of the guests' contributions (made online) go to toward buying one dream gift for the birthday child, and the other half is sent to the birthday child's charity of choice.

You can't choose any charity -- only the charities that ECHOage has chosen, but Smith and Zinman say the list of charities on their site are specifically chosen because they are "charities that support children directly as well as the environment." You can choose from a list of US and Canadian charities.

But just one gift for your child? Some parents may wonder if that's a hard pill to get your child to swallow, especially if they've had traditional birthday parties before, when they've received dozens of gifts. Not so, say Smith and Zinman. "When putting your child in the driver's seat and letting them choose, they get excited by the process and are able to see all the contributions being made. It's also an opportunity for parents to talk to their child about a gift that's important to them. And children are choosing substantial gifts. One child wanted an iPod Touch and another wanted horseback riding. Your child is able to choose something special to him."

Many parents have started having ECHOage parties for children turning as young as one year old, so they won't know any different as they grow up. And it's never too early to begin teaching your child to be compassionate and environmentally responsible. The most popular age group registering for an ECHOage party is two to six years, say Smith and Zinman.

How does ECHOage really connect a child to the charity that is the recipient of his/her guests' donations? Smith and Zinman have thought that through too. From the moment the parents register their child for an ECHOage party, there are several opportunities to make the charitable aspect tangible to the child as well as the party guests. "The child gets to learn immediately about a few charities because of the way we profile them on the website," explain Smith and Zinman. "We're specific about what the charities do and we do that in the child's language...they're learning what they're actually helping these charities do. Guests also learn about these charities that the child has chosen. And each child gets an award for the good thing he has done -- which is, not bringing a present and donating money to a charity -- and thank-you notes reiterate what has been done." They also add that the charities send the birthday child a letter that acknowledges what's been done and quantifies it in terms of social impact (i.e. 76,832 healthy meals went to kids, 26 students learned how to protect themselves online, or $3,702 went to making children's lives easier in hospitals).

As for cost, there isn't any cost to the parents who register for a party. Smith and Zinman say that a 15-percent service fee, which is used to basically keep the website running, is deducted from the total donations. They haven't yet paid themselves for their full-time commitment to ECHOage, which is clearly a work of passion for them.

"We are so encouraged by the things we see the children doing [through ECHOage]. It's the heart and soul."

For more information on ECHOage, visit

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmmm-very interesting. I would like to see it in action. I have forwarded your blog to my daughter who has 3 kids.........