When Jeff Shinabarger and his wife, Andre, got married 11 years ago, they celebrated in grand style by throwing a party for 500 friends and family members. When it was all over, they realized that most guests had given them gift cards as presents.

Their biggest challenge, the couple quickly realized, was spending all that money.

“We had this big stack of our cards on the top of our dresser,” says Shinabarger, 34. “And we got to a point where we were like, ‘There’s nothing else we want.’ That’s when I began to wonder how many other people had gift cards on their dresser or in their wallet or purse they weren’t using."

A few years later, as Shinabarger continued to stew over that question, he and Andre attended a friend’s wedding, where they found themselves seated at a table with strangers. Sensing an opportunity to break the awkward conversational silence, Shinabarger posed a challenge to the group: “I told them I had a theory that everyone carries at least one unused gift card with them. So I asked them to if they could help me prove my point.”

Everyone at the table reached into their billfolds, purses or clutches and started a collection of cards in the center of the table. The final tally was $52. That’s when Shinabarger threw down his next challenge.

“I thanked them for playing my game and said they could all take their cards back,” he says. “Or, I said to them, they could give the cards to me and I would give them to someone in need.”

To his surprise, the complete strangers he met that day gave him their $52 worth of cards and the idea for a new not-for-profit was born. “I was on top of the world,” he says, “though my wife may have been embarrassed that I had asked strangers for money.” After placing a call to a tech-savvy friend with his idea, they created a website – GiftCardGiver.com – and a Facebook page and put out the request for people to donate their unused cards as well.

Six months later, cards began to roll in through the mail. “People were telling us, ‘Oh, this is such a good idea. I have three cards I’m going to send you,’” says Shinabarger, who moved to Atlanta in 2003 to take an events marketing job. Eventually, the media took notice of what Shinabarger was doing. The Atlanta Journal Constitution and CNN ran stories about his fledgling organization.

Now, five years later, GiftCardGiver, which is run by Shinabarger and other volunteers, has given away about $200,000 in unused cards. “We continue to get gift cards in the mail every day,” he says. “And we find a way to use each and every card we get to help someone in need.”

A Booming Industry

It can be startling to realize how big a business gift cards have become. According to research conducted by Internet Retailer, U.S. consumers spent an estimated $110 billion on gift cards in 2012, the bulk of which comes around holiday time. And with survey results showing that more than 80 percent of Americans plan to buy at least one gift card this holiday season, we can only expect that number to grow. Just as eye-opening, though, is the fact that some $41 billion worth of gift cards bought between 2005 and 2011 remains unused, according to the TowerGroup, a research firm which tracks the industry.

“Gift cards have become the No. 1 gift in America,” says Shinabarger, adding that some $8 billion to $10 billion of the cards bought this year will go unused. “Even if you add up the value of everything else people give, it still doesn’t add up to the gift card total.”

That means that come January, GiftCardGiver expects to receive a deluge of unused cards – including some for as little as 37 cents from someone who bought something and sent on the remainder.

Shinabarger says that starting in January, between 10 and 20 volunteers call on every gift card to find the balance remaining and then use baseball card-style bins and Excel spreadsheets to catalog and track the value of the cards, which they then disperse to organizations and individuals who need them.

Jeff and Andre Shinabarger

Jeff and Andre Shinabarger

Recipients of the cards are chosen by a committee chaired by Andre. “I don’t get involved in the decisions,” says Jeff , who also now heads up the non-profit organizations Plywood People and Billboard Bags, which trains refugees to make products out of recycled billboard material. The committee at GiftCardGiver.com operates like a micro-foundation, where the typical gift ranges from $200 to $500, and anyone requesting gift cards must provide three recommendations to verify their story.

Those dollars have already gone a long way to help people like the leader of a non-profit organization in Atlanta whose house burned down. GiftCardGiver sent gift cards for restaurants and department stores to help the man feed and clothe his eight kids.   

Then there was the case of 40 children who were rescued in a sex trafficking sting in Kansas City. GiftCardGiver sent a stack of unused phone cards the kids were able to use to contact their families overseas who they had been taken from.

As powerful as those examples of helping people in need are, Shinabarger, who recently wrote a book titled, More or Less: Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity, says it can feel just as good to bless someone who might not normally get to do something, like the $400 in gift cards to a local ice cream store that were given to an Atlanta after-school program. 

“Our goal with any of the projects we are involved in is to ask where each of us has an excess of something, like gift cards, spare time, or even the books on your shelves,” he says, “and how we can use that excess to help someone else with it.”

Want to Help?

Send an e-mail to info@giftcardgiver.com to receive a free glass jar (like the one pictured above) you can use to collect unused or partially used gift cards to help others.