Outside the Box: Rethinking Holiday Charitable Giving

I am fundamentally opposed to Black Friday shopping. For many reasons, not the least of which is that it encroaches on one of my very favorite holidays–Pie For Breakfast Friday. I mean, wouldn’t you rather be home in your sweats having a slice of leftover pecan with your coffee than fighting to the death over half-priced electronics that will be broken by February?? Not even a question.

I can get down with Shop Local Saturday. I can even stomach Cyber Monday, to an extent. Yes, it contributes to the evils of capitalism, but still, I can cash in on great deals without having to load up on Xanax and venture into the holiday chaos of a big box store. So that’s a bonus.

And then there’s today–Giving Tuesday. Of course, you can give on any day of the year. But hopefully, after nearly a solid week of binge eating and shopping, we are ready to put some intention behind sharing with others. The more I see how much waste our holidays produce–and the more I struggle, in my own house, to keep all of our stuff under control–the more I lean towards charitable giving as my primary means of holiday gifting. I’m not a total Grinch–my kids get stuff from Santa. Not as much as most middle class American kids, but they do okay. For the adults in my life though, I’d much rather find a cause or organization that reflects that person’s values, and honor them by supporting that work in the world. And really, how many more tchotchkes do any of us need?

Of course, once you’ve decided to go this route with your “shopping,” you’ve got to find the right causes to support. There’s a great article making the rounds about Operation Christmas Child— a popular holiday effort that many families and churches make part of their annual tradition. Through this ministry, children in the developing world receive shoe boxes filled with small gifts and toys. It sounds nice enough. But it is culturally obtuse. It ignores the real lives of these children, and overlooks the reality of their daily needs. For the cost of shipping the cheap plastic stuff, you could stretch your dollars–and your holiday cheer–a whole lot farther, giving to organizations that support sustainable development in the regions that need it most. Not to mention, you could avoid the environmental hazard of thousands of shoe boxes headed, ultimately, for a landfill.

OCC is just one example of how charity can hurt. Many of the organizations and efforts that we support have similar pitfalls, whether they serve the urban inner city or the rural poor. To truly do good in the world, efforts must align with people’s actual lives and context; connect with the local culture; and operate at a relational level that seeks to understand what services would truly transform the life of a community.

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So, where to give? Find organizations that are credible, that do good work, and have low overhead to make the most of your giving. You also want to support efforts that work with people, and have a physical presence in the areas they serve–and are not just handing out band-aids (literal and figurative) for nice Christmas photo opps. Here are some ideas. Find the one that fits you– and the person you want to gift this season–and go nuts. Spiced, holiday nuts of course.

Think Globally: 

If you truly want to help children in poverty, think less plastic slinky, more clean water and vaccinations. These are the best of the best.

Foods Resource Bank, reducing world hunger through sustainable agriculture and development.

Church World Service, empowers communities to take ownership of their own future through sustainable solutions.

Week of Compassion, the relief, refugee and development mission fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Oxfam, working to end global poverty by addressing root causes and creating sustainable solutions.

Bread for the World, a Christian collective working to end hunger, primarily through political action; changing policies and conditions that allow poverty to persist, and providing opportunity both at home and abroad.

If you want to hand the recipient something tangible to symbolize the gift you made in their honor, you could give them a nice loaf of bread with a pretty bow, with a card about the organization you chose–and a note telling them why you picked it just for them.

Act Locally: 

-Giving to an arts lover? Support your local symphony or youth theater programIf you’re a big spender, you could stick some performance tickets in a nice card, telling the person that you gave in their honor.

-Most local libraries have literacy programs that put a lot of life back into the community for children, youth, and adults with special needs. You could put a note about the program in a gently-used book, and gift it to the person you recognized with your donation.

-Channel your inner Leslie Knope and gift a local Parks and Recreation program. You might be able to put a friend or family member’s name on a tree or a bench or something. So that’s festive.

For the Nature Lover/Activist: 

-Want to make a political statement AND save the world? Give the gift of preservation. Our natural resources are under threat right now by an administration of climate-change deniers. Resist! Make a gift to the National Parks Foundation or the Sierra Club. It’s like LITERALLY giving someone a Christmas tree… but what you’re really giving them is the assurance that there will BE trees in the future. Attach a note to a pretty nature-themed ornament, and you are all set.

Other Ideas: 

-A gift supporting Public Radio or Public Television is ALWAYS in season. And with all the buzz about net neutrality right now, protecting a truly free press is more important than ever. Send your note or card in a fun NPR or PBS mug with a packet of gourmet coffee or hot chocolate.

-Or, you can always gift someone’s Alma Mater in their honor. Send the note with some home team swag, like a hat or scarf.

The staggering truth is that Americans will spend more than $400 BILLION on retail this Christmas. What if we could give even a 10-percent tithe of that to causes that have a true impact in our communities? Or better yet–what if we cut our retail spending in half, and gave the remainder away in the true spirit of the season?

Hopefully this has sparked some creative ideas about gifts that give back to the world, while also letting your loved ones know that they matter to you– and that you chose something especially meaningful just for them. I would love to hear what you are doing for friends and family this season, and how you are letting them know about it.

Happy Giving Tuesday to all–and to all a good (consumerism-free) night.

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