Saturday, December 25, 2004

Give and Get - Philanthropy meets December.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone.

In the spirit of birth, re-birth and renewal implicit in Hannukah, Christmas and the New Year holidays, I hope to get this blog reactivated in the new year.

This time of year is always interesting, with its uniquely American mix of giving and getting, religion and capitalism, consumerism and marketing (particularly aimed at kids). The very notion of a Spirit of Christmas is clearly seperated from a spirit of Christianity or Christ and his beliefs. While the various strains of Christianity offer differing solutions to and interpretations of earthly rewards and wealth (and how they relate to Heavenly rewards), it seems to me that mainstream American Christmas has clearly been segmented off from serious religious meaning, and is used by business as a hyper-market moment.

It is almost ironic, then, that all businesses and services seem shut down on Christmas day itself -- like the great feeding frenzy must allow people a brief non-commercial time/space to take a breath, be with family, and purge ourselves of all the things we have purchased through a secondary orgy of giving.

Which leads us to philanthropy (you were wondering where this rant was going, no?). There are (at least) two types of philanthropy going on during this season: inter-personal gift exchange, and organized, organizational fundraising/giving. You can see the prior going on in many homes and workplaces. The latter is often highlighted in the human interest stories of newspapers and television news. The nonprofit sector gets just as worked up in December as the for-profit community! This is the time when individuals and families -- low-income, middle-class and upper-class -- write checks to the "charities" and causes (i.e. nonprofit organizations) about which they care (and also to many that send them direct mail or use other fundraising tools to reach them).

Both the individual and organizational giving and getting bring with them a variety of challenges and questions. Amongst the most serious are the issues of motivation and appropriateness. Why do we give what we give to whom we give? How is it done? In what spirit (to use an over-used phrase) is it given? When do we get or expect to get in exchange?

Just glance at the business reports and it takes little guess work to understand the motivations of businesses and corporations during this season. They cash in all the year-round branding and marketing NOW -- hoping that their products will be the It thing with the 0-18 crowd and their parents. When credit card debt goes up, so do their earnings and stock shares.

The motivations of nonprofits are also related to marketing and earning -- they cash-in less on the cycle of giving in which our consumer-selves live, and more on the moral and humane side of our citizen-selves. What do we care about outside of our family and friendship circles? How do we create our selves, and meaning about ourselves and our world, when we voluntarily donate to organizations that deal with poverty, environment, culture, justice, and pressing community and social issues?

Much has been written on these matters by much more knowledgable and experienced people than myself. As a great first place to looks, I recommend the writings of Paul G. Schervish, a prof at Boston College's Center on Wealth and Philanthropy. You can find his and others' research and articles on Motivations for Charitable Giving at

Be thankful for all our gifts (you can always return those you don't need),

Note: This entry represents personal opinion, and not any stand taken by or opinion of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy as an organization.

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