When mother of three boys Theresa Evanoff saw how much waste and privilege goes into birthdays and parties, she wanted to change the way we give gifts. With Gift-it Forward, a social enterprise aimed at making gift-giving more meaningful, she is creating a win-win for both the receiver and the giver. 

SINGAPORE (Apr 17): Somewhere in our homes is a cupboard full of childrens’ toys, gifted by friends on special days, birthdays, and Christmases. Some of the toys have clearly seen the battle scars of countless hours of playtime, but chances are, many more have not been unboxed, or lay there forgotten after the initial excitement. It is only normal to want to treat our children, or to buy a friend something special for their birthdays. Yet these special occasions may end up damaging the environment, as research has shown that 90% of plastic children’s toys are unrecyclable. This is because many are made with other materials, which cannot be easily sorted or removed by recycling centres. Many also contain electronic parts, which eventually turn into e-waste. And when you take into account that the global toy industry is valued at US$90.4 billion($128 billion), that is a lot of unrecyclable plastic that is going to end up in landfills.

It was with this in mind that mother-of-three Theresa Evanoff came up with the idea of Gift-it Forward, an online invitation and gifting platform, which empowers people who are celebrating special occasions to donate to a charity while also getting their perfect gift.

Giving back

“[I started Gift-it Forward] about three and a half years ago. I was inspired by my kids, because as parents we go to a lot of birthday parties. We just saw first hand how much waste and privilege there was from birthday parties, where kids get piles of gifts they often don’t appreciate,” Evanoff says. “And as a parent, I often also don’t know what to buy for somebody else.” She says, it’s obviously the child’s special day and every parent wants their child to have fun. “But I don’t need another closet full of plastic toys that they’ll throw away.”

More importantly, Evanoff, who started her career as a management consultant, wanted to ensure her children would be conscious of the needs of others. “I want them to think about other people at the same time, to think about the environment, and to think about community,” she adds. “So I wanted to envision the way that we can make gift-giving fun and easy, and also meaningful for both the receiver and the giver; maybe in some way make a difference to the community around us.” So, armed with just the idea, Evanoff began approaching charities and spreading the word within the community, especially in the international school, where her children are studying.

“It was [me] just trying to convince the charities that is what we’re trying to do for them. But really, it was a no-brainer, because we are offering them a new revenue stream and donors that they would never have had access to, or unlikely to have access to,”she says. “We don’t charge [the charities] any fees for it; we just genuinely believe in their causes and want to help them because we know a lot of these small charities don’t have big marketing budgets.”

In a number of ways, Gift-it Forward creates a win-win situation, for the giver and the receiver. What Gift-it Forward does is to link the party host to charities addressing different social causes in Singapore. Hosts can create an event, and use one of the many invitation templates offered by the platform to send an invite, with a link to donate, on to their guests.

This link will then allow the guests to donate to a pool of funds. “After you do that, you can choose a charity you’d like to support. Then, you enter in all your party details, and even if it’s a virtual party, it can be like a gift fund, you can still enter all that and then you can select between 50% or 100% of the funds to go to the charity,” she adds. If you’ve chosen to give 50-50, half the funds go to the charity, and the other half goes back to you for the gift. Usually, for children’s parties, she advocates a 50-50.

“We want them to have the perspective that it’s a win-win situation,” she says. “Because if you create a mindset that they have to give everything to a charity, they may not be keen to do that again, and we truly want to build lifelong givers.”

It wasn’t all that easy at the beginning, however. Learning about how to start everything from scratch was challenging, at first, having come from a corporate setting and having so many resources at her fingertips. “This was uncharted territory for me,” she recalls.“But once I had the idea, conceptualised it and legally set it up, it was about trying to get people on board and understanding whether or not people want something like this.” She spoke to numerous other parents, who were in the same situation and they all echoed the same thing. “They say: We all have piles of unused gifts or unwanted gifts; and it’s not fun to take your kids shopping to a toy store when the gifts are not for them!”

Hearing their feedback validated that there was indeed a space for something like Gift-it Forward, but then she had to convince the charities to get on board. “Some of [the charities] were convinced, and I was able to start with six or seven charities. But there were also pushback and challenges, because, well, who am I to them? I’m a start-up and I haven’t done it before,” she recalls. “But now, charities are actually approaching us, and understanding that we have a track record, so that’s a lot easier now.”

Spreading the word about Gift-it Forward was another hurdle. “We got started mostly within the international school community because my children go there, but now it’s expanded, and people hear about us through word of mouth, and through the press.”

However, she was spurred on by the vibrant start-up scene in Singapore. In her current role as programme director at the German Accelerator Southeast Asia, she always has an ear on the ground about the start-up scene in Singapore. “Singapore has a very vibrant startup community, and plugging into that, and learning about that for the first time was really great; the whole community is very supportive,” she adds. It also helped that people genuinely want to do their part, Evanoff says.

"We’ve raised close to about $100,000 for various charities over the last three and a half years, and while this started because of children, more adults and youth are also using our platform,” she says. “I do think that everyone believes in the social cause of reducing waste and clutter.”

Today, Gift-it Forward has grownto have 19 charities in partnership with them.

Gift of compassion 

Gift-it Forward’s mission is, at heart, to teach kids about giving to charity and to teach them to be mindful, lifelong givers. “Our values are around generosity and gratitude, and we believe that through our platform, we can facilitate in instilling these values in that they can interact with their parents and choose their causes.” “For me, growing up, my parents were always big into social causes as well and helping out, whether in the church or around the community. So I think that has always inspired me to do something and just take action.”

For her children, she really wanted them to think of something bigger than themselves. “I think that’s what [all parents] hope to do. I think the true passion for me is teaching my kids, and other children, about mindfulness. To be mindful about the environment and the community,” she says. “It doesn’t really matter, honestly, how much money they raised, but it’s to just get them into that mindset to think about others.” As parents, it’s natural to want to give your children everything. “But I think the greatest gift that we can honestly give them is a gift of compassion. To be able to think about others with compassion and empathy.”