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Doing Good: A Different Way to Give for Birthdays and Holidays

giftpileThis time of year always instills in me a bit of dread and anxiety.

My kids’ birthdays are in November, and they are one week apart (yeah, I know, what were we thinking?). This means not only did I need to navigate Halloween costumes (and this includes me and my husband!) but I also have to plan birthday parties and figure out how much to spend on birthday gifts.

Last year, a mom told me about a unique approach to giving which inspired me.

Overwhelmed by the sheer number of gifts kids were getting at birthday parties, she ended up convincing parents in her preschool to give homemade cards instead. I thought that was a great idea.

This year we have a student from Japan living with us and in addition to my kids, her birthday is also right around Halloween. The solution: We decided we would just have a family party with just one birthday cake instead of three separate cakes (the stress of making all those cakes along with the candy they will get from Halloween would just do me in).

And we also decided instead of birthday parties this year, each child would invite one friend to go trampolining with them. Phew. Feels good to put that check on my ever-growing list of things to do for the rest of the year.

When we’ve had birthday parties in the past, we did book exchanges and clothing drives. Parents seem to appreciate those because those are so much easier to do rather than finding a gift for someone else’s child.

And frequently I see Facebook posts by friends who are stressed out just thinking about what to get for their children for the holidays. In fact, one friend was bemoaning that he’d need for a loan to pay for all the gifts his child wanted for Christmas.

Thanksgiving is right around the corner and pretty soon  Black Friday will be upon us. This great article by Tom Watson, project manager for King County’s Recycling and Environmental Services, got me wondering:

Instead of participating in the consumer frenzy and getting mentally and financially stressed, what are some ways to make giving practices more meaningful and fun during the holiday season?

Here are some ideas:

family game nightFocus on creating experiences and traditions. Take your family to the theater, sign your animal lover up for horse lessons, or go to a special event like the circus. My family has started a new tradition: We made a fabric calendar with pockets for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. For each night there will be an activity like ice skating, playing a game, making latkes or watching a movie. We prefer to focus on being more aware of how we spend time together and doing things for each other instead of putting the emphasis on giving and buying gifts. Think about some rituals you can look forward to or initiate during this time of year. We do give gifts but these tend to be pretty simple and focus on experiences.

Buy locally. Take advantage of farmers’ markets for locally made food and crafts. You’ll be supporting your local farmer and craftsperson and your dollars won’t be traveling far.

Choose wisely. Think about the impact your gift-giving practices can have on the environment. Internet-bought gifts contain packaging with Styrofoam and plastic, both of which end up in the landfill. Will recipients of your thoughtfully made (and yummy!) baked goods actually eat them, or will they chuck them into the trash (or better yet, compost)?

Recycle materials. There’s nothing wrong with a little end-of-fall cleaning. You may find something that has been “gently” used and can be passed on.

Buy less. Make handmade gifts with your family. Use alternative wrapping paper such as the bazillions of kids’ drawings that are lying around or that pretty leftover fabric and ribbons. Sometimes I put gifts in gift bags that people have given me over the years and cover them with leftover tissue paper.

Donate to an organization you care about in a family member’s name. Heifer International for those animal lovers and Women for Women International, which helps women displaced by war and violence, are some examples. Last year I wrote a simple guide to giving that may help you decide how to choose an organization to support.

Volunteer for a cause you believe in. There are always volunteer opportunities, especially during the holidays. For Seattle families, this article is rich with family volunteer opportunities. I work for FamilyWorks as the Volunteer Coordinator, and we always have a need for canned goods, food drive staffing, and food-bank volunteers. You must be 16 or older to volunteer at the food bank, but anyone can do a food drive with us.

Give your extended family ideas about what to give. Sometimes grandparents and other family members like to dote on their grandchildren and end up sending tons of gifts you don’t want or need. Rather than trying to get them to change their practices, you can give them concrete ideas of what you or your children would most enjoy. Check out  Green Holidays for more ideas.

Start small. Clarify your own values around giving practices. Once you do this, it will be easier to articulate to your loved ones what you’d like to see happen around the holiday season.

Take baby steps! Don't try to make radical changes in your giving practice all at once.

2171Elizabeth Ralston is a writer with a public health background. She writes about topics on philanthropy, including profiles of inspiring people and organizations on her blog, The Inspired Philanthropist . When she is not writing, she enjoys spending time in the great outdoors with her family. You can follow her on Twitter.

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