7 Creative Ways to Give Meaningfully This Holiday Season


“We don’t need stuff. We need ideas and energy
and subjects and motivation and time and lots of other things
that can’t be bought and are not sold at Wal-Mart. Happiness is
not under the Christmas tree but somewhere in the air above it.
It doesn’t stick to traditional dates or statutory holidays. It
can sometimes be found on the most ordinary of Thursdays.
Sometimes it just blows in like a swallow in December.
Sometimes when you want it most you can’t have it. And
sometimes you’re up to your elbows. That’s why we don’t need
regular stuff. We’re into bigger stuff.”
 – Robert Genn

This time of year, shopping malls lock solid, the wheels of consumerism spin so fast they smoke and stress levels peak higher than the Rockies. It’s the season of Stuff.

We define Stuff as “things you buy off the shelf”. And we like Stuff. (In no way are we opposed to shopping in general – because just as individual sustainability is about being smarter with your money, worldwide sustainability is about shoppers being smarter with theirs. Eco-artisans around the world depend on turnover to make a living and to empower themselves in every way. Ingenuity, innovation and artistry deserve to be rewarded with our custom. No, shopping’s not the problem…it’s the importance of money that has us worried. A world where a $400 present is obviously twice as thoughtful as a $200 present is not one we’d like to live in. It’s not about spending more, and it’s not just about spending less. It’s about spending right.)

The best currencies to spend, the most truly appreciated, are your forethought and your time. And a clever way to demonstrate them is to give a gift that isn’t Stuff. Here are a few ideas.

-Image: batega

Donate Your Money For Them

Giving money on behalf of someone else is a caring but finely-judged business. You’ll need to make sure that the recipient fully approves of the organizations you’re donating to…and second, be sure to remember that charity donations are about people, not money. The person receiving your gift will want to know exactly how it’s changed someone’s life, even modestly – the human story behind the donation. Here are a few sites we’re fond of:

Kiva: the precious gift of a micro-loan that can mean success or failure to a developing world entrepreneur. The site shows you, and can put you directly in contact with, the people who benefit from your loan.

Razoo: new to the scene, and already impressively comprehensive, it’s a way to tax-deductably donate to any of 1.6 million charities and track it every step of the way.

The Hunger Site: a worthy cause all ’round.

Maatiam: when you shop online through this retail portal, part of the purchase price of your items goes to the charities of your choice.

- Image: MShades
Donate Your Time To Them

“I, [your name here], hereby give to [their name here] full use of my time for the duration of one full evening / day / weekend. I will perform any requested task with a smile on my face and a song in my heart, whether it’s long-avoided DIY, cooking a meal with abundant imagination, or spending the entire time with [their name here] without succumbing to any interruption or distraction.”

-  Image: thanos tsimekas

Adopt a Tree

Say what? Don’t worry, no gardening is involved in this case (but see later) – the tree in question bears olives, is in Italy and belongs to Nudo. By sponsoring one of their trees, you’re supporting small-scale organic artisanal olive oil production – and if that’s not enough to satisfy the most passionate foodie, a complementary twice-yearly delivery of extra virgin oil from from these olive groves should do the trick.

- Image: BrianScott

Adopt an Animal

Every year more creatures slide onto the Threatened and Endangered species lists. Anyone would jump at the chance to help them move in the opposite direction (because it does happen) – and this explains the enduring popularity of the World Wildlife Fund and some of the smaller organizations like Born Free, Adopt Wildlife, Oceana and wildlife painter David Shepherd’s own foundation. As with other charity donations, make sure your gift includes the story behind the money.

Image: elusive

Bring Everyone Together

It’s what holidays are really about – the chance to properly renew friendships and spend long-overdue time finding out what’s going on in everyone else’s life. So a gathering of friends is always a nice surprise to spring on someone. If the person involved is thoroughly part of the Information Revolution and has friends internationally or in different states, think new media: set up a conference phone and get people to dial in, or get them to pre-record some video. A festive example: get friends to sing “ËœWe Wish You A Merry Christmas’ to a camera, and splice it together into a singalong montage. Or you could go traditionalist, and assemble a book of handwritten letters for them. But let’s face it – nothing beats a good party.

Image: thebittenword

Sponsor a Farm

It’s called Community Supported Agriculture, it’s the hottest new way to support organic farming production – and by buying into a farm’s consumer group, you enjoy the fruits of its labor. If you’ve been dying to prove to someone how much better organic produce is, this is a clever gift as well as a thoughtful one. Grist has more details.

Image: kekremsi

Make Them Paper

A few years back, I received a very special Christmas card – it was hand-drawn by a friend with a flair for intricate runic design. Whether it’s the paper itself or what’s on it, a hand-crafted paper product clearly exhibits the time and care that has been lavished on it. As non-Stuff gifts go, it’s a winner. We’re particularly enamored with handmade notebooks, but if you’re as creative as my friend, why not have a go at the Japanese art of origami?

-Image: Ed.Ward

Ground Force Someone’s Garden!

This homemade gift is left until last because it’s the most impressive undertaking…and the riskiest.

Ground Force was a popular Brit show of the late ’90s/early Noughties, featuring three cheery home makeover experts who would be asked to sneak into someone’s back garden while they were away on holiday and completely transform it. The show was popular for two reasons: the fact that it’s a delightful, exciting gift for anyone…and the range of expressions (very occasionally incandescent fury) on the faces of people when they discover their garden has been dug up beyond all recognition.

So it’s a gift that’s potentially better than anything you could buy in the shops. But you need to know someone really, really well before you turn their garden into a small Amazonian rain forest.

Top Image: xirranisx

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.