Alternative Giving Spreads Joy Beyond Recipient

Posted December 17, 2007

When our oldest son turned 1, we asked that he be given nothing. His January birthday came before he’d even played with everything from Christmas. He needed no additional gifts, we insisted. For those who felt compelled to mark the date, we suggested they make a contribution to a children’s charity.

One person did. The others brought presents – lots and lots of presents. He fell asleep before he could open all of them. That was almost 15 years ago, and the notion of alternative giving has come a long way since.

Alternative giving includes making a contribution on someone’s behalf, working at a charity in their honor or purchasing the gift from a nonprofit organization or agency that reinvests the money into serving that organization’s goals.

Proponents of the practice favor it for a number of reasons, from the ease of shopping to the ability to give a double gift, both to the person being honored and the actual beneficiary of the purchase or donation. And in a world where many people have more stuff than they’ll ever need, it is a one-size-fits-all, no-need-to-exchange gift that can make everyone feel good.

Celebrate Your Convictions

In our case, we proposed an alternative to a traditional gift largely in recognition that a 1-year-old enjoyed the wrapping paper more than the present and that many kids needed while he had more than enough.

Other families are considering these same issues. In Holly Springs, Jill and Scott Anderson are trying to come up with the best way to give and receive during the holidays.

About five years ago, for their oldest daughter Maya’s first Christmas, the Andersons began re-evaluating how to celebrate the season in ways that emphasized family and spirituality more and gift-giving less.

“We tried to cut out the commercial aspect,” Jill Anderson says.

In the years since, they’ve added another daughter, Azaria, now 3, and remain committed to celebrating Christmas in a way that’s respectful of others and thoughtful in terms of presents. That initiative has ranged from requesting homemade gifts or donations to charity from would-be gift-givers to visiting local Angel trees to choose needy families to shop for.

“It’s been quite a journey for us,” Anderson says. “We’re still trying to figure out what works for us.”

Organizations That Help

A variety of charities are making alternative giving easier for folks like the Andersons – some have been working at it for years – and in many cases, the gifts are tax-deductible. Organizations like Heifer International and World Vision mail catalogs that show what contributions of a given amount will buy and allow the purchaser to specify their giving level.

A donation of $20 to Heifer, which works to end poverty and hunger by providing livestock to people in need worldwide, can purchase a flock of ducks and geese. The birds can then be raised for their eggs and meat. Their droppings are used for fertilizer, and as they reproduce, their offspring can be sold. A larger gift of $120 can purchase a sheep, which can be raised for its wool and breeding.

A gift of $20 to World Vision, which works with children and families worldwide, provides malaria prevention for one family. For $25, the organization provides a child with a backpack filled with school supplies.

For those who prefer a more traditional gift but would like to see it benefit others beyond the recipient, organizations from UNICEF to Ten Thousand Villages offer the chance to make a purchase that gives back. With UNICEF, $30 will buy a sterling silver bracelet with a globe charm, and $12 will buy a wall calendar featuring children’s artwork. Ten Thousand Villages is a fair-trade organization.

Even greeting cards can do double duty, providing cheer as well as benefiting Duke Children’s Hospital and the North Carolina Children’s Hospital. And Web sites like steer givers to alternative gifting opportunities.

Find What Works

Elizabeth Altman, marketing associate with Ten Thousand Villages in Raleigh, says that when buyers from the national organization visit artisan groups in their home countries, they are met with eagerness.

“(The artisans) love that they are able to help themselves. It’s not a handout. They’re able to help their families by using their skills,” Altman says. “And it gives consumers the opportunity to feel good about the purchase. They know the artisans were paid a fair price, have a safe workplace and can plan for the future.”

In the Anderson household, the process is still evolving.

“We either make conscious choices so our money goes to something good,” Jill says, “or the gifts reflect something we believe in.”

It’s not always easy to do, she admits. Last year, they tried having a pared-down Christmas, but the holiday felt like it was missing something.

“There is value in giving something to our family members, the sharing part,” she says. But she also recognizes that a donation last year to Heifer International on behalf of an older relative was the perfect gift.

“There was nothing else I could have given her that would have evoked that sense of appreciation,” Jill says.


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