This Year Try Passing the Buck

Author’s note: This article first appeared December 10, 1998 in Holiday Memories, a special publication of the Beaverton Valley Times, Tigard Times, Tualatin Times, Lake Oswego Review, & West Linn Tidings.

I couldn’t remember exactly how it started, so I called my Mom. She wasn’t really sure either but thinks she read about it in a magazine. Whatever the source, our holidays have been better ever since.

For the past decade or so, instead of exchanging gifts, my mother, brother, sister, and I have sent contributions to each other’s favorite charities. My wife and brother-in-law join in as well. Last year I got my father involved too.

It is a simple but powerful idea. Certainly it feels good to direct money to my favorite non-profit organizations. However, I have discovered other motivations as well. Like most people, I know of more worthy causes than I’m able to support financially. By directing our holiday gifts to charities we each expand our capacity to give. I also appreciate the balance and perspective this offers during a season that can sometimes feel overwhelming.

There are advantages for the gift givers as well. To begin with, they no longer have to wonder what to get you each year. Instead of scrambling around town to get your gift wrapped and delivered on time, they write a note, sign a check, and lick a stamp. Rather than worrying if it fits or if you like the color, they have the satisfaction of knowing they gave you a meaningful gift. As an added bonus, their gift on your behalf is more than likely tax deductible for them.

Of course the ultimate beneficiaries are those served by the organizations you choose. By foregoing that CD you could feed a family of four for a day. Passing up that sweater would allow you to pay the heating bill for someone who would otherwise be cold. Instead of a new VCR, imagine funding books for a dozen adult literacy students. These are only my examples; think of how the organizations you believe in have an impact in the community.

There are many ways to implement a charitable gift exchange. Here are a few suggestions based on our experience:

It has to work for both parties. Evaluate each potential participant’s level of interest as well as your specific relationship. For example, within my immediate family — which includes my wife and our two young sons — we choose to give each other traditional gifts.

Treat it like a real gift. Send a card to the person on your gift list to let them know you sent the contribution. (I create a special certificate that I enclose as well.)

Make it clear to the charity what’s going on. I send a brief letter with my checks explaining the origin of the donation and asking the organization to address future requests for funding to the person who requested the contribution.

Provide gift givers with a list of two or three organizations. Most of us support more than one charity; offering choices makes it more enjoyable for those who give and may even increase their gift.

It’s hard for me to imagine the holidays without exchanging contributions to our favorite charities. I would miss the broader sense of celebration it brings to the season. I invite you to try it yourself this year. Your holidays may never be the same.

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