Visa U.S.A. chief executive Carl Pascarella smiled as he watched a thousand screaming children sing and dance the macarena at Town Hall in New York.

Mr. Pascarella and other executives were in New York last Thursday to kick off Visa's largest cause-related marketing campaign, designed to give children books.

The San Francisco-based card association pledged to donate at least $1 million to Reading is Fundamental Inc., the nation's largest nonprofit children's literacy organization, based in Washington.

Visa has garnered support from bankers, merchants, and celebrities nationwide for the nonprofit's "Read Me a Story" campaign.

"We are not only promoting the Visa brand," Mr. Pascarella said in an interview, "but with member banks involved in the drive and tie-ins with local communities, we're spreading national awareness of a great cause."

On hand for the launching, the actor Danny Glover sang and danced, and a cast of 10 storybook characters entertained with an animated program of stories and original songs.

Tara Holland, Miss America 1997, was also on hand to endorse the importance of being able to read.

The event kicked off Visa's two-month bus tour for a cast of characters including Pippi Longstocking and Little Red Riding Hood. They will visit schools, libraries, hospitals, and shopping malls in 61 U.S. cities, aiming to read a million stories aloud.

"It's good to see that Visa is sponsoring a program that gives more than travel benefits," said K. Shelly Porges, chief executive of Porges/Hudson Marketing, San Francisco. "Many baby boomers are now parents, and they will respond to this campaign because it is a cause that they can relate to."

Visa's donation is to be based on purchase volume on Visa cards through Dec. 31. Visa will double its donation when cardholders make purchases at selected merchants, including Choice Hotels, Circuit City, Macaroni Grill, and T.J. Maxx.

Member banks will contribute to the cause by donating books to children at each tour stop, sponsoring in-branch events, and mailing more than 46 million statement stuffers to customers.

"We want to give kids pride of ownership and freedom of choice by letting them choose and keep the books they want to read," said Lynda Johnson Robb, chairman of the reading group's board.

Selected merchants will also sponsor in-store reading events.

Some of the group's 6,000 reading programs are federally funded. For those that are not, corporations provide local funding, said Ms. Robb. But the involvement of so many partners - Visa, member banks, merchants, and local celebrities - is unique, she added.

"Corporations and others need to get involved," said Ms. Robb. "Children reading is everybody's business."

Mr. Glover will be featured in a national television advertisement. In it, he reads a story to a stadium full of children.

"Danny Glover is a good choice for a spokesman because he is an actor that can relate to both kids and parents, having appeared in a number of children's movies," said Ms. Porges.

The tour will end with a real-life version of the TV ad Dec. 23 during halftime of a San Francisco 49ers Monday Night Football game and the presentation of a check to the reading group.

As an official sponsor of the National Football League, Visa will promote the program at a number of NFL games along the bus route.

"Everything you do in school and life requires reading," Mr. Glover said. "You can't escape it."

In other holiday campaigns, American Express Co., a pioneer in cause- related marketing, will for the fourth year support the fight against hunger in the United States.

Each time a purchase is made with an American Express card, the association will donate three cents to Share Our Strength, an anti-hunger organization, toward a total of up to $5 million.

Hundreds of merchants will hold shopping and food fund-raising events to raise awareness of the campaign.

In a third campaign, the retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Co. launched a credit card sponsorship tie-in with Gilda's Clubs - meeting places that offer support, education, and friendship for cancer patients and their friends and families.

For each Sears proprietary card purchase in November and December, 50 cents will be donated to Gilda's Clubs, up to a maximum of $200,000.

Sears also will start a companywide initiative to raise at least $1 million over the next five years. One promotion is the donation of 10% of the sales of ties and scarves.

The nonprofit organization, which actor Gene Wilder helped found as a tribute to his wife, the late Gilda Radner, is based in New York and has affiliates in 10 other states.

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