Last year, employees at Kinko's Northwest corporate offices in Ventura each forked out about $15 to buy gifts for each other, then threw a party at the home of one of their executives.
This year, they scaled back on the fun.
Instead of having a party just for themselves, the company's 30 employees are throwing a party this week for 22 needy and abused children, where one worker will dress as Santa Claus and hand out gifts purchased by the office.
And they are spending less on their presents to each other to save money for lavishing on the children's presents.
Their altruism represents a small but growing trend in Ventura County, local charity organizers said.
Although overall donations to charitable organizations are down, more and more office workers are opting against exchanging gifts or throwing themselves parties in favor of helping the less fortunate.
The change may reflect the poor economy, charity officials said, as people who are employed are feeling more grateful for all that they have and increasingly aware of people who have less.
"They do it because they know there's hard times out there," said Maj. Eddie Patterson of the Salvation Army in Ventura.
At Cardkey Systems Inc. in Simi Valley, employees bought gifts for children served by the nonprofit Interface Children Family Services.
Although workers were asked only to spend $15, the same amount they would have paid in past years to bring a spouse or date to an office Christmas party, some went over budget.
Computer programmer Roy Leach spent $110 on toys for five children. He wants to repeat the charity drive next year.
"It was kind of nice to remind people what Christmas is about," the 26-year-old said. "It's nice to get away from the commercialism."
At other offices, workers agreed to pool their money for charity rather than exchange gifts with each other.
Besides adding to the holiday spirit, the practice cuts down on the number of unneeded, unwanted presents that well-meaning co-workers often buy for each other, some office workers said.
"You can get only so much bubble bath," said Carla Lunt, an administrative assistant at Prudential California Realty in Ventura.
The more than 40 employees at Lunt's office agreed about five years ago that instead of exchanging gifts with each other, they would contribute the money to the Salvation Army.
This year, office contributions totaled $220, much less than the $400 contributed in past years, which Lunt said may be partly due to the recession. The firm used the money to buy grocery-store gift certificates that the Salvation Army will deliver to needy families.
"It really gives you a great feeling," Lunt said. "It's just great to feel that you're making a difference, that you're helping somebody. Maybe there's one mouth that won't go hungry."
The number of offices and groups making holiday donations to the Salvation Army has grown from about six last year to 12 this year, Patterson said. Even a local bowling team decided to donate the funds they had collected all year to the Salvation Army rather than to throw their usual holiday bash.
Other agencies also noticed such an increase.
The nonprofit Project Understanding in Ventura has received an offer from a local bank to donate the Christmas bonuses received by employees.
And Interface officials said more offices, churches and other groups across the county are buying food, clothing and toys for troubled families or abused children served by the agency.
At Kinko's Northwest, accounts payable specialist Shanthi Rajan said workers decided to continue their tradition of each person drawing a co-worker's name for a gift, but to spend only $10 per present instead of $15.
Instead, each person spent about $15 on presents for the Interface children.
"Why not share it with someone who is less fortunate?" Rajan said.
At Blue Cross of California in Newbury Park, two departments have each adopted an Interface family for whom they will buy gifts and food during the holidays.
One of the departments bought clothing, toys and grocery-store gift certificates for a family of 11, which had supplied a list of their needs, regional supervisor Lisa Lambert said.
"They don't ask for the Barbie doll," Lambert said. "They ask for shoes and they ask for socks and they ask for underwear."
Although the purchases were not frivolous, they got expensive.
Each of the 12 employees in Lambert's department pitched in $40 to $45, about four times more than the $10 to $15 they spent in past years on gifts for their colleagues.
But the extra cost was worth it, Lambert said. And her office plans to continue the practice next year.
"You end up making it a really special Christmas for people who maybe really can't afford anything."