The Anti-Consumerist Gift Files: Righteous Giving

The second night of Chanukah, my sons got clothes from their great aunt, which they received politely but unenthusiastically. As we were heading to bed that night, after a late night at our synagogue's annual Chanukah party, six year old Isaiah asked me "Mommy, will tomorrow night be another clothes present night?" When I told him I suspected not, since the next night's gift would come from Grandma, who likes to give toys, he sighed and said "It is ok if there's clothes, but I just needed to be ready for them." It can be tough to have good manners when you are little. We expect the kids to be gracious, but mastering that skill takes practice.

My kids get one present a night for Chanukah, and not big ones. Most of them come from family - from us, they will get blankets, a new kiddush cup (used for sabbath meals, and as much a gift to me protecting our collection of breakable kiddush cups) and homemade mittens. Grandparents will do what they do, and other relatives weigh in, so the presents get divided up over 7 nights.

Wait, seven? Yup. Because one night - tonight, in fact, the gift the children get is the chance to give an animal through The Heifer Fund to another family. We've been doing this for 4 years now, and the kids do look forward to it. They've been carrying the catalog around for several weeks, debating their choices. Some years they've combined their budgets to give large animals like llamas and water buffalo. This year they've come down in favor of everyone picking their own. Eli and Asher are both giving honeybees. Isaiah wants to give trees, because "trees are more important than anything!". And Simon is giving rabbits.

We make a ritual out giving tzedakah, which is sometimes translated as "charity" but really means "righteous giving" (the distinction is that it doesn't derive from the idea of "caritas" embedded in charity, but from the idea of giving a share by obligation). The kids pick their animals, and write letters to the new owners, offering suggestions for names for the animals and telling them about the animals on our farm. I doubt the letters ever reach anyone outside the immediate Heifer organization, but hey, they enjoy it. The kids are allowed to pick names for "their" animals (Asher and Eli will be naming only the Queen Bee, since I decline to hear suggestions for 50,000 bees) - one memorable year when Isaiah was a toddler and he won the "who gets to name the shared animal" contest, the llama we gave was named "Sticky."

It isn't always easy to get kids to grasp charitable giving - but they are starting to fully grasp it - I sat the boys down and told them that some people have no farm animals, and no access to the food, fertilizer and fiber that animals give. I asked them to think about what it would be like for us to have no goats, no chickens, no rabbits - to think about all the ways the animals are part of the farm and our lives. And they got it. Isaiah offered to send Heifer a couple of our chickens, maybe by mail. So far I'm sparing them (the chickens and the Heifer people) that. But I plan to take the kids to visit the Heifer demonstration farm in Massachusetts soon, and I'm glad the kids are willing to give something up to share.

All of which is a long way of getting at the point, which is that one of the best possible gifts is a donation to charity in someone's name. I like this much better than buying some overpriced product that donates a tiny percentage to charity, although that's better than nothing. So I give you three organizations that not only do really good things, but do a really good job of making people feel like they got a gift themselves when you donated in their name. Obviously, there's nothing to stop you from buying a little something for yourself in the way of feeling good either, and sending a donation in your own name. There are plenty of wonderful other organizations and I'd be thrilled if you'd like to list some of them below as well.

First is Heifer International: which gives farm animals to families to poor to have them, along with agricultural knowledge. The families receiving animals then pass offspring on to other families in their community. There's nothing not to like about them. I think this is a particularly wonderful organization for children to use, because it is so clearly important and comprehensible.

Next, consider a donation to the Green Belt Movement - founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, the Green Belt movement uses donations to plant trees in Kenya, protecting soil, providing natural cooling and carbon sequestration. Kenya is in the grips of a terrible, terrible drought right now, and more trees - and more education is essential.

Or Consider The Water Project which brings wells and safe water to people in Africa with none. You can give someone a lifetime of safe drinking water - something that will become increasingly scarce as the world warms

Finally, not quite a charitable donation, but pretty awesome if you need something yourself or want to give a material gift, consider the bogo light, a solar powered light that can replace kerosene in many of the poorest places in the world, and which makes a wonderful emergency light here too. You can use their buy-one give-one program to get one for yourself and another for a poor village, or you can give both here:

This is an easy sell for grownups, but I really encourage families with kids to make one or more of the gifts they give their children and grandchildren charitable. Your kids probably don't need more stuff - and teaching them to give graciously, just like teaching my kids to receive graciously, is a long term process, that has to begin early.


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By Bill the Galac… (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

Hi Sharon,

I love your heart. This year we gave to two local food banks (I think you call them pantries, down there) I don't know why I say "down there", since you're almost due east of us, here in Burlington, Ontario. Some parts of Canada, are South of some Northern parts of the U.S., even outside of Alaska. Boy, did I get sidetracked. We chose the charities this year instead of gifts to each other. Our girls are too young (3 and 4) to understand as yet, but we will take your suggestion for the future. One local foodbank can convert a $1 donation to $5 in food, buying discards from supermarkets and such. We can help a lot of people like that. The city next to us has just under 20,000 people using the foodbank every month. We are very well off by comparison, and what do we need? We have a roof over our head and food on the table. Plus, the warm feeling this gives me lasts a long time. Last year it was the United Way...the year before, it was a single mother who had left her abusive husband taking her 4 children with her and not bringing much with her but the clothes on their backs. We played secret Santa for them. This idea of giving for Christmas has stuck in us.

Oxfam Unwrapped is another good place to get gifts like this:

Also, I wondered if any UK readers have seen something like the Bogolight for sale over here? I'd like to get one a bit closer to home if possible.

We're both "giving" and "receiving" donations to Heifer as gifts this year. I count the receiving end of this arrangement as a huge achievement this year. It sure beats the usual useless gifts we get from well meaning relatives.

Also, a gift card for the local grocery store is still on my list of things to pick up for the local battered women's shelter, plus some simple but real food for the foodbank (lentils, I think). Unfortunately, most of what I've seen for the foodbank at the local library collection point is chef boyardee style crapola.

Because of family backgrounds, we celebrate Hanukah and Christmas (as non-believers). We've always made the Hanukah celebration into an opportunity for charitable giving by the children. One gives to the local SPCA, the other is concerned with endangered species protection and gives to World Wildlife Fund. I'm pretty disgusted with how many mailings I get from WWF, so I tried to turn her to Wildlife Conservation Society, but she didn't want to change. I'll request them not to send mailings when I sign up - see how that goes.

For Christmas, we initiated charitable gift exchanges with the adults in the extended family a few years ago. It was a big hit, and lessens the burden of conspicuous consumption that is so hard to escape at this time of year.

Our family also does this for one night instead of presents we do not need. My stepson chose to give mosquito nets in Africa, I chose a mangrove replanting project in Louisiana and my husband chose a local food bank. Our one year old daughter will choose when she is older. Most years we would pick one project but this year we all had very different ideas and they are all worthwhile causes.

By Stephanie (not verified) on 18 Dec 2009 #permalink

One of my favorite bus ads recently has been a series from Oxfam, saying "Sometimes giving a $^%$# isn't such a bad thing", advertising charity gifts of, among other things, manure.

If you feel that you have more time than money available for charitable giving, there are a number of options for making items that help others. As a knitter, two that I love are the Knit-a-Square project, to create blankets for AIDS orphans in Africa, and the Red Scarf Project for the Orphan Foundation of America, which provides Valentine care packages for college students who've aged out of foster care. I've been able to use just leftover yarn for the Knit-a-Square program, from my own projects, and from a box of yarn given to me by a friend, after her mother died.