Tuesday, November 15, 2011

To give or not to give a goat

Several years ago, just before my eldest child was born, I started buying gift cards from charities as part of my Christmas present shopping.

I'm sure you know the things I'm talking about - most of the major charities offer them now, as they're so popular. They're simply little printed cards which designate a relief or aid purpose to which the donation has been ostensibly out. Depending on the amount donated, you can "give" things like seed packets, training in chicken farming, a school supplies pack, a mosquito net, a birthing kit, tree seedlings, bridges & roads, safe water systems, and livestock of various kinds.

On the very first year I decided to do this, I bought $100 worth of gift cards in relatively small amounts and included them inside the Christmas cards I gave to my colleagues at work. I was excited about this as a concept; we had a culture of small-gift-giving at work, and the years before I'd handed out things like candles, soap packs and chocolates, but this seemed like a good option to me.

Most of my colleagues seemed happy with their gift cards, several expressing their pleasure at getting them instead of another random object. One colleague, however, frowned as she opened hers, and was quite cool to me for days afterwards.

Eventually, I asked her what was bothering her.

She said, "I just find the whole charity-card thing a bit ... I dunno ... sanctimonious and self-serving."

I was rather taken aback, but this was person that I respected and liked, and I wanted to hear her opinion. So I asked her to elaborate.

She said, "Look, I know you meant it well, and I really don't want to offend you. But don't you think that when you give someone a gift, it should be for them, rather than about you and what causes you've decided to support this year? If you knew that one of us was passionate about a particular charity, then a donation in that person's name would be appropriate. But as it is, how do you know that we even agree with the work being done or value it in the same way you do? If you want to donate to charity, I am absolutely on board with that, I do it too; but aren't you confusing two things with these cards? Your donation decisions - and your tax deductions, of course! - and your gift-giving?"

I was gobsmacked by her words at the time, and I won't say they weren't hurtful or that I didn't resent them, because that would be a lie. But I did think about them more and more as time went on, and eventually I concluded that, while I didn't think she was being entirely fair, there was some truth in what she was saying.

Giving gifts and giving money to causes aren't necessarily motivated by the same impulses, and there can be something impersonal about gift cards of any kind, charity ones included. If used indiscrimminately, they can make recipients feel undervalued, and can, however unintentionally, come off as holier-than-thou showing off.

I still buy $100 worth of charity gift cards every year, despite all this - usually a mixture from Oxfam Unwrapped and TEAR Australia's Really Useful Gifts. And I still include this as part - but not all - of our Christmas giving budget. It's particularly important to me that the kids see that we budget Christmas in a way that sets aside half of the available funds for charitable giving, rather than acquiring objects (or food!) for ourselves or family & friends. Both the big kids look forward to opening their own gift cards now and seeing whether their foregoing of an extra Zhou Zhou pet has bought another child a goat, a pig or a vegetable garden.

That's my decision, but I am more aware now of how this can be received, and possibly a little more strategic about who I distribute them to. (For example, I always include a $5 school supplies card in with the teacher gifts I get for the kids' teachers, along with home-baked goodies and a bottle of wine, as I feel safe in assuming there is an appropriate thematic connection there).

Do you buy charity donation cards at Christmas? What are your views on them?

This post is part of NaBloPoMo. Halfway there - 15 down, 15 to go!

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