Giftless Birthday Party Atlanta

The author’s son, Gus, with the peanut butter and jelly he collected from party guests for his fourth birthday.

My son Leo was turning six and I planned a gymnastics birthday party. I ordered the cake, the favors, and even arranged to have a therapy dog from his school make a surprise appearance. But when parents started asking me what my son wanted for his birthday, I think I actually became queasy.

This kid had everything. His little room and our playroom were covered in Legos, trains, stuffed animals and action figures. He was practically a hoarder. How could I allow more toys into our home? And worse, how could people spend money on a kid who truly didn’t need anything? That money could go to so many better causes.

I thought, what if people could donate to a cause that my son was passionate about, rather than giving him another Lego set? I figured the parents would be on board but I had to convince the birthday boy.

I started with a cause I knew he couldn’t refuse—therapy dogs. I told him I found an organization that raised money for kids to have service or therapy dogs. I told him we could ask people to donate to that cause in his name and he could “donate his birthday.” He was intrigued but not completely sold. “So I wouldn’t get any birthday presents?” he asked. I had to think fast. “We will still give you a birthday present. Your grandparents will give you presents and so will your aunts and uncles,” I told him.

“But my friends won’t bring presents to my party?” he asked, still unsure. I thought about the sight of all those birthday presents piled up in his room and I had to do what all parents do best. I negotiated. “If you agree to let people donate to a cause instead of bringing you presents, I will take you to Target and you can spend $50 on whatever you want.”


My son just celebrated his tenth birthday and between him and his younger brother, I have now thrown nine giftless birthday parties. We always have the same arrangement—they can receive presents from family (and maybe one or two close friends) and go on a $50 shopping trip. In exchange, they agree to ask their guests to donate to a charity instead of bringing gifts.

If you are considering a giftless birthday party, here are some of my best (and worst) practices:

Ask for Stuff, Not Money

The first time we did this we asked people to donate money to a charity. While some of them did, a lot of them forgot or were confused by the concept. Plus, people did not like showing up to a party empty handed. They felt rude.

Therefore, we started asking them to bring things like peanut butter and jelly for the local food pantry or dog treats for the animal shelter. Some people even put the donations in gift bags.

The author’s children, Leo and Gus, delivering dog treats to The Humane Society after Leo’s eighth birthday.

Let the Kids Pick the Charity

Your kids are more inclined to get excited about this if it is a cause they are passionate about –or even items they are passionate about. When my younger son ate mac and cheese for every meal, we had his guests bring boxes of mac and cheese.  Give them options—school supplies for local schools, stuffed animals for kids in the hospital or—our charity of choice lately—items for the animal shelter.

Gus with his mac and cheese donations after his fifth birthday.

SCREAM it on the Invite

This is an ALL CAPS situation. If you don’t make it perfectly clear that you do not want guests to bring gifts, they will bring gifts. They will say things like, “Oh, you didn’t really mean that.” So try this: “PLEASE NO GIFTS!! Instead, Leo would like his guests to bring dog treats so that he can take them to The Humane Society. He will get plenty of gifts from family.” If you send a reminder about the party via email or text, say it again IN ALL CAPS.

Have the Birthday Child do the Delivering

When kids can see exactly where their donations go, it helps them to understand that their choice makes an impact. Since we have been doing dog treats the last few birthday parties, my kids have gotten to not only drop off their donations, but they got to pet the dogs and cats too.

The whole thing is a win all around. Your child doesn’t receive an overload of gifts he doesn’t need; you don’t have to find places in your house for said gifts; your guests don’t have to search for the perfect present and spend too much on it; your favorite charity gets much-needed donations. Best of all, your children and the party guests learn a wonderful lesson about giving –and that is a good reason to celebrate.

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