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charitable giving

An indigenous woman crosses a riverbed of an intermittent Andean river south of La Paz, Bolivia on Friday, March 17, 2006. The world must act now to head off water wars in developing nations, where the resource has become so scarce, polluted or threatened that people are willing to fight over it, activists at a protest forum outside the 4th World Water Forum said Friday.(AP Photo/Dado Galdieri)DADO GALDIERI/The Associated Press

After 13 years together, Aaron Gallagher and Joanne Houston already had a toaster and they didn't need another set of stemware. So when this Oshawa, Ont., couple got married last month they asked their guests for a different kind of present: a complete water delivery system for a community in Bolivia. Not your average wedding gift, but definitely memorable.

Married in Toronto, they shunned many traditions, forgoing a lavish dinner, in favour of a mainly vegetarian cocktail reception, skipping flowers and traditional favours (they gave their guests stainless steel water bottles from charity Plan Canada) to lessen their carbon footprint, and reminding guests to reuse their glasses at the bar, to minimize water waste.

The icing on the vanilla vegan wedding cake and matching cupcakes, though, was the Gallaghers' request for donations raised $12,800 for Plan Canada, raising funds to outfit a community with rainwater-collection systems, wells and household access points.

Like the trendsetting royal couple Prince William and his bride Kate Middleton, who created an altruistic gift registry and netted an approximate $1.7-million (U.S.) for 26 of their favourite charities last year, many couples in Canada have been looking for ways to make their special days even more meaningful.

Charities such as Canada Helps, which acts as an umbrella website for all 88,000 registered charities in Canada, has been averaging about 60 wedding "giving pages" a year recently, a growth of about 3 per cent, year over year. Giving pages allow couples to create an online registry of their favourite charity or charities, where guests can make a contribution directly, and receive a charitable receipt.

Some couples choose to have all their gifts donated to a charity, while others add charity to other registries as an option.

The average wedding nets the charities about $1,000, said Canada Helps CEO Owen Charters.

"It's been growing," he added. "We see it for couples who are getting married a bit later in life, or who are combining two households."

Jo-Ann Way and Marke Erickson in Victoria, B.C., are both embarking on their second marriage this August. The pair decided to make their intimate wedding an opportunity to give back to a cause near and dear to Mr. Erickson's heart: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Victoria.

When Mr. Erickson became a Big Brother about five years ago, he chose 13-year-old Tyson, because the boy had been waiting for about four years for a match. He mentored the boy for just over a year. "These programs need a lot of support," said Mr. Erickson, who added he wasn't really into having a wedding "with the big huge gift opening the next day."

In an era when couples can register for everything from iPads to travel dollars for their honeymoons, however, asking that their wedding windfall be given to charity is not always a popular option.

"It's a bit of a sensitive issue," said Madeleine Kojakian, a wedding planner in Montreal. "Older guests want to give the couple a gift. And many couples rely on the envelopes [cash]they get from the wedding." The option of giving to a charity in lieu of parting favours for guests has been popular for the last decade, she noted, adding that about 70 per cent of her clients look to include some sort of charity giving in their wedding. Charitable giving could be as simple as making sure leftover food goes to an organization like Second Harvest, or donating centrepieces to nursing homes.

Plan Canada is looking at creating new Web content, including downloadable PDF invite inserts to make the giving process easier. The organization works with couples like the Gallaghers to choose a specific project in countries where the organization has the infrastructure to make an impact.

With the $12,800 that the Gallagher wedding raised, Plan Canada secured matching funds from the Canadian International Development Agency, at a ratio of 9:1, turning that total into $128,000, enough for five complete sustainable water systems and the education necessary to maintain the infrastructure.

For the Gallaghers, their cause spurred the nuptials they had long put on hold. With two children and a home of their own, they had been engaged since 2004, but lacked the incentive to get married.

When Ms. Houston proposed making their wedding an opportunity to help those in need, Mr. Gallagher felt it was time.

"We're not very traditional and are anti-consumerism," said Mr. Gallagher. "When Joanne came up with the idea to make [our wedding]a cause and about helping someone else out, I was really happy about that." At their wedding reception, guests responded with enthusiasm to the couple's goal.

"This gives a whole different dimension to weddings," said guest Lindsay Timmins.

The groom's brother Nathan Gallagher added that the giving is a true reflection of the couple. "When we think about their wedding, we will remember what they stand for and what they support," he said.

The gift that keeps on giving

Many charities are making it easier for people to add a philanthropic element to their wedding day. There's an organization for almost every type of couple.

UNDECIDED DO-GOODERS The charity: Canada Helps is an umbrella agency that makes it easy for charities big and small to receive online donations. Any charity that is registered with the Canada Revenue Agency can be selected through Canada Helps.

Getting started: Online wedding giving pages can be set up so couples can direct guests to give electronically. Choose from any number of charities, big or small, local or national. Pick one charity or several.

ANIMAL LOVERS The charity: World Wildlife Fund promotes sustainable use of natural resources, reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption and general conservation.

Getting started: Download an invitation insert asking guests to give to WWF (also see them for ways to make your wedding more "green.)

WORLDLY PHILANTHROPISTS The charity: Plan Canada is one of the oldest and largest international development agencies. It works in 68 countries, improving education opportunities, water access, health care and infrastructure.

Getting started: Giving pages can be set up with the help of a Plan representative. Choose a project to support and set a goal. Plan representatives are happy to help find a project that reflects the couple's interests.