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Donations through Plan Canada’s ‘gifts of hope’ have grown 10 to 25 per cent each year in recent years.

When Gordon Pinsent walked into the studio, he did not know that he would be playing a goat.

The Canadian actor was recording his first commercial for Plan Canada in 2012. He came to the session thinking he would be the spokesman, recalled Karen Howe, senior vice-president and creative director at the charity's ad agency, One Advertising. They had to explain to him on the spot that the spokesman would actually be a goat. He paused for a moment, and said, "Great!"

The campaign in which the goat memorably shouts "Shop today!" in the television ad, has been a success for Plan – and a style of marketing that has paid off for a number of charities. Donations tied to tangible things are nothing new, but fundraisers have seen them increasing in recent years.

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"Canadians spend a lot of money around the holidays, and we want to give gifts that are meaningful," said Jeff Cornett, Plan Canada's vice-president of donor marketing. The organization has seen its "gifts of hope" donations grow 10 to 25 per cent each year in recent years. At World Vision Canada, which runs a similar program, 5,478 goats were donated last year alone.

This is different from the "gift with donation" model, where people buy a product and some share of that money goes toward a cause. Oxfam Canada's "unwrapped" program, for example, sells goats, bicycles, beehives, and other items. Causes are finding that donors respond when they can see items or services that a donation will pay for.

That can be particularly important for charities doing international work, Mr. Cornett said, since they struggle to attract donors more inclined to give close to home. Showing tangible results can make the need feel less distant.

That's the idea behind Unicef Canada's "survival gifts" such as bed nets for malaria prevention, vaccines, or a town water pump for bigger spenders.

To promote the program this year, Unicef commissioned a new online video from Lewis Hilsenteger, which launched on Thursday. The Newmarket, Ont.-based video producer's YouTube channel has 1.67 million subscribers. He drew worldwide media attention in September – and almost 60-million views – for his "iPhone 6 Bend Test" video that showed a flaw in the new Apple Inc. phone.

Mr. Hilsenteger works in the popular genre of "unboxing" videos. He opens brand-new products, almost always technologically-related, such as gaming consoles, smartphones, tablets and headphones. Talking mostly off-the-cuff to the camera, he reviews them. His global audience is 92 per cent male, and core viewers are generally aged 18 to 30, though he notes that the total audience runs the demographic gamut.

Unicef approached him in October to "unbox" some of their gifts, including a blanket, a mosquito bed net and food supplement pouches that he taste tests. The products, he notes in the video that he produced pro bono, are "probably more important than your next video game."

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"Lewis is going to give us exposure to a whole new audience," said Sharon Avery, chief development officer at Unicef Canada. Younger donors are less likely to read Unicef's print catalogues. Its budget doesn't usually allow for television ads, she noted, but younger potential donors are not watching traditional TV. It is not unusual for Mr. Hilsenteger's videos to draw more viewers than an episode of a top TV show in Canada.

"We use [the gift program] to meet Unicef. First-time donors learn so much about us and the way we work through it," Ms. Avery said. "If the survival gift campaign is the beginning of a conversation, we need to be starting earlier and engaging them younger."

Mr. Hilsenteger himself did not know about the gift program before Unicef approached him, but immediately took to the idea.

"I do videos on products all year long – the latest and greatest stuff that people want and maybe don't necessarily need," he said. "… We're so tuned in to that part of commercialism. Why couldn't a charity be an extension of that system? … You can envision an individual putting that [item] to use in a way that you don't get by dropping five bucks into something on the way out of the grocery store."

It's not just younger donors who crave a tangible idea of where their money is going. In 2004, when Unicef's "survival gifts" first launched, nearly $200,000 was donated through this method. By last year, $1.8-million worth of gifts were given.

It is difficult to know if overall giving through tangible gifts is on the rise in Canada. Organizations that track the sector do not have numbers, and the Canada Revenue Agency does not require charities to report this kind of donation differently, so it cannot quantify it. But some who work in the sector say they have seen growth. The marketing tactic is spreading.

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"There are a lot of charities getting into this arena, making giving tangible," Ms. Avery said.

This is happening at the local level, as well as internationally.

For example, the SickKids Foundation offers donations linked to specific items or services, such as a visit from a therapy dog for a child ($25), and bigger-ticket items such as a child's wheelchair ($5,000).

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto has "gifts of light" such as supplies for art therapy ($72), and books and magazines for the patient library ($20). When that program started in 2008, it drew less than $100,000. This year, CAMH is forecasting "gifts of light" donations close to $700,000.

"Every charitable organization needs a bit of both. It's important that there are donors willing to give to a pool of funds. But charities realize that's not all donors want," said Caroline Riseboro, senior vice-president of marketing and development at CAMH. "Sometimes they want to start by giving something tangible, and when you have their trust that you've delivered on that for them, they'll give again."

And it's a good fit for the digital world, where charities are looking to connect with the next generation of donors.

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"Because it's a virtual gift, it's perfect for online shopping. You don't need to try on the perfect goat for size," Plan Canada's Mr. Cornett said, laughing. "You just have to buy a goat."

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