How is the sweater your aunt Martha gave you similar to charitable donations?

What’s the worst present you ever received? A crazy colored sweater from your aunt Martha, questionable cookies from a neighbor, a tacky decoration from a coworker. We’ve all received those types of gifts, but have we given them as well?

The gift that doesn’t fit

We’ve all received that sweater, shirt, or tie that just doesn’t work. It’s too big, too small, too tight, too wide, or too something else that means we’ll never wear it.

From my own childhood it was the year that all of the cousins received little knit hats from our grandmother. They were so small that nobody could actually put them on, they would only fit on teddybears. Reflecting back they were probably baby hats that my grandma got on sale. But at that age few of us still had teddybears and none of us had babies, so the gifts were useless.

How often do we give to charities just assuming that if people are so poor they need charity any gift is helpful. Just like my hat, there are many times when what is given is of little use. Look for charities that vary their aid according to the needs of the local population instead of one-size-fits-all projects.

The cheap gift that breaks or doesn’t work

What gifts have you received that were so poorly constructed that they broke, chipped, or wore out after a couple of uses. The can opener with the handle that broke off with the first can? An aluminum pan that burned everything you cooked in it? A toy that immediately lost a wheel?

For me it was the pink nightgowns my other grandmother gave us. The material was so cheap that after just a couple of washes we were wearing holes in the elbows. For my father it was the huge ratchet set with dozens different parts. It looked great, but the first time he used it the ratchet handle snapped in half. In an attempt to get the biggest bang for the buck, the gifts that were purchased were so poorly constructed they didn’t last more than a few weeks.

How often do we seek aid programs that offer the biggest bang for our buck. What do aid recipients loose in quality because of our focus on quantity, and how useful is our donation over time? Instead of focusing on the cheapest and quickest aid projects, look instead for aid agencies that are investing time and effort into developing quality aid projects.

The gift that is for someone far younger than yourself

Did you receive the Holly Hobby Wishing Well game when you were already making a killing at poker? Tassels and a bell for your bike when you were trying to be cool in junior high? Perhaps two towels and a washrag that might be good for someone just moving away from home but you already have a full linen closet.

For me it was the five dollars I received every year from my grandmother. In my family you were not considered an adult until you were married, at which time you finally received the adult Christmas gift – a Fifty dollar bill, a jar of honey (my grandfather was a bee keeper) and a bag of pecans (relatives owned a pecan orchard in California). Although I’d moved away from home at 17, paid my way through college and was older than most of my cousins I continued to receive the child’s gift well into my late 20’s. It often cost me far more than five dollars in gas to drive the three hour round trip to accept my allotted gift. It wasn’t until my mother argued my case with my grandmother that even though I wasn’t married I was an adult and had adult expenses that I finally began receiving $50. But I never got the honey and pecans.

How often do we make incorrect assumptions about the lives of the people that receive charity. Do we assume that they are more like helpless children than able adults? Do we think that their problems are easier to fix than our own, especially if they’re living in a developing country. Instead of automatically jumping at the simple solution or deciding what is best for “them”, think instead about what would be the best solution for similar problems in your own life.

Presents that meet the needs of the giver, not the recipient

I’m sure all of us have received what I refer to as “duty gifts.” These gifts are not really about you or your needs, but instead are about the needs of the giver. Fruitcake might be the classic example of this. Perhaps you’ve received a plate of fudge and nuts when you’re allergic to nuts, or a plastic coin purse you didn’t want or need.

In my childhood it was the gifts from my mother’s mother. She would go to after-Christmas sales and pick up gifts for a buck or two each. These gifts were wrapped and put into piles of girls gifts and boys gifts. A year later she would randomly put our names on the gender appropriate packages and hand them out. This system met her need to give gifts that were inexpensive, simple, and fair. Because the gifts didn’t meet any of our needs this ritual became a chore for us as polite gift receivers. My father’s mother took another route. She announced one day when we were pre-teens that we would no longer exchange gifts because we hadn’t thanked her properly for her gifts in the past. It’s been two decades now and she still doesn’t exchange gifts with us.

Think about your own motivations for charitable giving. Why are you giving, what are your expectations and how does this effect the agencies and programs you choose to fund? Are you giving in ways that ensure that your money goes to the best programs for the people you are trying to help, or do you make donation decisions based on the easiest way to give, what makes you feel good, or what is the socially polite thing to do?

The best gift ever

Now think of the best gifts you’ve ever received. What were they and what made them so great?

One of my best gifts ever was the shortwave radio my sister gave me just before I left for the Peace Corps. I was so attached to it that I kept it with me wherever I went in my house. Princess Diana will forever bring up memories of the cold water bucket bath I was taking when I heard of her death over the radio balanced on the edge of my sink. That radio was my lifeline to the English speaking world for two years. How did my sister know to give it to me? She asked what I needed most.

As this year draws to a close and you make your final charitable donations, reflect on both the worst and best gifts you’ve ever received. What made your best gifts so good, and how did the giver know what to give you? Compare that with what made your worst gifts so bad, and how that giver decided what to give you. What does this tell you about effective giving?

A New Year’s resolution

When you make your New Year’s resolutions, consider adding to your list one thing you can do to ensure that your charitable donations will be remembered as the best aid someone ever received.