14 Charitable Ways to Celebrate Valentine's Day

Forget the wining and dining. Do something that matters.

Like many people, I've had good Valentine's Days, and...not so good. The not-so-good ones date back to middle school, when I, like many of my classmates, anxiously awaited one of those sweetheart-pink carnations from what I hoped would be a secret admirer. Much to my dismay, the carnation never came. And for years, it left me feeling downright uneasy about the 14th of February.

I later came to realize that Valentine's Day is about much more than flowers and candy, or even being part of a couple. I love that there's a day in our busy lives when we officially celebrate love. I'm not just talking romantic love, like Hallmark would have us believe, but the real-deal, universal "stuff of life" that makes up who we really are. Behind our roles and personalities and professionalism, each of us, at essence, is a living, loving being. Sure, on the other 364 days of the year we might try to fake it, but on this one day attributed to a Saint, the world agrees: Love is where it's at.

Call it spirit, call it sweetness -- whatever you want to call it, we've all got it. It's just a matter of what we do with it. So this Valentine's Day, put the cupids and carnations and conversation-hearts aside. Give of yourself, your time, your heart -- to people you know, and people you don't. Share your love in small ways and big. And best of all, be generous.

There are plenty of ways to do good and feel good this Valentine's Day. Here are a few.

  1. Will You Be My...Volunteer? There's no shortage of ways you can help. Volunteer at a local soup kitchen, animal shelter, or favorite nonprofit, or offer to tutor a child in reading or math. You can find loads of opportunities on VolunteerMatch, Idealist and Points of Light, or check your local college campus for organized events.

  2. Put the "Fun" in Fundraising. If you're taking that special someone out for a pricey dinner, why not have your bill go to a good cause? Check your newspaper or online city pages for Valentine-themed fundraisers that support local nonprofits. Or better yet, throw your own happy hour or party, and donate the proceeds to charity.

  3. Send Love Letters. Not just to your sweetheart, but to people and organizations that are doing good things for the world. Tell them why you respect and appreciate their work, and that they really do make a difference. If you're feeling extra romantic, include a donation in the envelope.

  4. Reach Out to Those in Need. Deliver homemade Valentine's cards or heart-shaped cookies to the sick, the elderly, the homeless -- and their caregivers. Call a local children's hospital, domestic violence shelter, or nursing home and ask how you can help.

  5. Give Gifts That Give. There are dozens of charitable shopping sites and online nonprofit stores selling gifts for a good cause. Look for red Motorola phones, Gap T-shirts and iPods from Apple to support the Red Campaign, or try TOMS Marketplace, or Shop4Charity online. 

  6. Remember Those Who Serve You. In the spirit of service, think of all those people who make your life easier and more convenient -- every single day. Give a thank-you card to the bus driver or the barista who serves you your latte. Personally thank the janitor who keeps your office or campus clean, or the people who pick up your trash. Leave your waiter an extra tip, and smile -- big -- at the gas station attendant.

  7. Clean Your Closets. Get a head start on spring cleaning and donate clothes, toys, furniture, household items, and old computers to nonprofits accepting them. Check your local Big Brothers Big Sisters, Salvation Army, or Goodwill Industries.

  8. Get Your Heart Pumping. Charity walks and runs raise money for a good cause and get you moving in the great outdoors. Bring the family or your co-workers along to make it a team event. To find an event, check your local American Heart Association or your local runners' clubs, like Road Runners.

  9. Adopt a Pet for a Day. Offer to take care of a pet for an ill or homebound neighbor. Volunteer at your local animal shelter to take the dogs for a walk. Or adopt an endangered species through the World Wildlife Fund, and you'll get a lovable stuffed pet and adoption certificate.

  10. Be a Fair-Trade Valentine. Buy certified fair-trade chocolate from companies that ensure that small-scale farmers receive higher and more stable prices for their cocoa. Try Divine, Theo, Taza or the many gourmet organic bars at Equal Exchange cooperative. Or get a fair-trade Valentine's Day Action Kit -- complete with chocolates, cards, and more -- at Global Exchange.

  11. Love the Environment. Don't say it with flowers -- unless they're organic. Buy fresh organic blooms from your local farmer's market, or send a bunch from Organic Bouquet, which donates 10 percent to charities like CARE, the Global Fund for Women, and the American Red Cross.

  12. Support Disaster Relief. Hurricane Katrina may be history by now, but the devastating effects in the Gulf region are far from forgotten. When you buy Love Letters to the South, a photography book of celebrities paying tribute to those affected by Hurricane Katrina, your purchase will help with rebuilding efforts. Proceeds support the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund and Habitat for Humanity's Operation Home Delivery.

  13. Say "I Do" to Charitable Weddings. If you've decided to tie the knot with that special someone, consider creating a charitable gift registry through the I Do Foundation and its many retail and nonprofit partners.

  14. Celebrate with Small Acts of Kindness. Valentine's Day isn't the only holiday this week: February 10-17 is Random Acts of Kindness Week. What can you do? Buy coffee, lunch, or a toll payment for the person behind you in line. Tape the exact change for a soda to a vending machine. Send cards with joyful messages to strangers. Collect canned goods for a food bank. Shovel a neighbor's driveway, or babysit -- for free. Visit actsofkindness.org for hundreds of other ideas.

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Based in Kula, Hawaii, Elaine Gast is a writer and communications consultant for nonprofits, foundations, membership associations, businesses, and individuals. She has authored six books, contributed to Fodor's Travel Publications, and published articles in numerous magazines and newspapers. Elaine is president of Four Winds Writing, Inc.

Updated February 2014