Monday, January 3, 2011

Sharing the Joy

About a week ago, the media started cover a patent filed by Amazon. It's a system that allows recipients to exchange gifts before the item is shipped from Amazon. This is genius. It saves on shipping and returns, and fewer white elephants sitting in people's homes. The user can even set up rules for how to "convert" incoming gifts and restrictions on how recipients convert their gifts. (No more books on investment for Uncle Bob!)

Of course, there are the usual reactions of horror that this feature violates the norms of gift-giving. Etiquette expert Anna Post was quoted in The Washington Post, saying:

"This idea totally misses the spirit of gift giving," Post said. "The point of gift giving is to allow someone else to go through that action of buying something for us. Otherwise, giving a gift just becomes another one of the world's transactions."

It seems to me that both the existence of this feature and Post's reaction indicates a problem with gift giving in the current material age. We have become so affluent that gift giving is done much more freely. When times were leaner, such as during the Depression, a gift, no matter how small, meant that someone cared and gave a lot of thought to the act. Spending money on someone was a big deal. These days, people seem to feel like they have to give a gift. If you're going to give something to one aunt, you have to give something to all the aunts. In these kinds of situations, people are far more likely to give a gift that misses the mark. In my husband's orderly WASP family, people make lists and gifts often go back to the store. In my unruly Chinese family, gifts are usually items that were purchased on sale without any thought to the recipient and shameless re-gifting occurs.

I have an idea that might be a solution to Ms. Post's concerns and a good application of the Amazon conversion feature. What if you could give the gift to someone who really wanted or needed it? What if we could combine the conversion feature with a web site like Donors Choose or CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates for children holiday gift program. With these programs, the recipient makes a wish list or selects a single item. If someone is given that gift and doesn't want it, they have the option for sending it to another person who has wished for it.

Something like this happened on thebloggess's blog this Christmas. She offered $30 gift cards to the first 20 people who were having difficulty coming up with presents for their children. When more than 20 people needed help, her readers came forward with donations for gift cards. Other bloggers gave her a shout out and things snowballed from there. The following was her second-last update to the project, which appeared on Christmas Day.

As of right now (noon Saturday) I have emailed hundreds of donors and over 500 gift cards are scheduled to go out to people who need help. If everything goes as planned (Please, God, let it go as planned) everyone who has asked for help as of this moment will get at least one gift card and many will get several. Some got cash for medicine. Some got money so they could keep the electricity on and buy food for Christmas dinner. Some only asked for help in buying presents for their brothers or sisters so their moms wouldn’t be so worried. Some received help and then got more help than they needed and decided to turn around and become a donor themselves. I wish I could tell you what this has meant to me, but there aren’t words for it. The emails and comments coming in from people who got a Christmas miracle are incredible, but the ones from people so thankful to be able to help are even more moving. Right now we still have a few more donors available and another 20 are standing by in case someone who asked for a donation hasn’t heard anything from their donor by Monday.

That’s one hell of a Christmas miracle, y’all.

(In her final update, she wrote that over 600 gift cards went out and her hands were about to fall off. I can imagine. Good cause, though.)

In the text that I bolded, the recipients kept up the spirit of giving. This is the kind of gift-giving that is hard to find fault with. The whole project has a spirit of gift giving that means something that goes beyond stodgy rules of etiquette. Giving a gift that is more than an fulfilling an obligation and makes a real difference to the recipient is much more satisfying.

I also think charitable part of our obligation as human beings. The Christian church advocates tithing, i.e. giving 10% of one's income to the church. Few people do this, but among the evangelicals there are debates over whether it's meant to be net or gross income. (Render unto God, before or after rendering unto Caesar.) Muslims are encouraged to donate 3% of their income to charity, any charity, not just the mosque. This is a rule of thumb that I have been following for some years and it's been a pleasure to share the joy as my income has grown. This year, I supported Irvine United Congregational Church, the Houston SPCA (Charles Jantzen is my hero), Story Corps, This American Life, NPR, Bonita Canyon School, World Vision, Plan Canada, and the Hamlin Fistula Foundation.

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