Editor’s note: As stores begin to hawk their holiday deals, Shareable reposts this 2009 piece about how Neal Gorenflo gave up holiday gifts and discovered a better way to bond with family.

I reached my limit with holiday shopping ten years ago. I was never a big fan because it combines a bunch of stuff I don’t like – unnecessary stress, long lines, and buying when prices are high. Not to mention that most holiday gifts miss the mark for me and the recipients. And I try to keep the number of things I own to a minimum since stuff demands attention, attention that I prefer to give to people.

So I decided not to do it. Just like that.

But I’m no Grinch. I enjoy the holidays. I just wanted to do the gift part of it differently. So I had an idea. Instead of exchanging gifts, I would exchange donations. I sent an e-mail to my family asking what causes they’d like me to donate to and included a list of my favorite causes they could donate to in return.

(The right way of) introducing the idea of a donation exchange.

I made the mistake of venting my frustration about the excessive materialism of the holidays. Well, that did not sit well with the born-again Christians in my family. I got a lot of flack for my attitude. This was a humbling e-mail FAIL, especially for someone who majored in American culture in college! I had attacked a treasured American tradition. And my family indirectly. What did I expect?

I was not going to let the foot in my mouth stop me. I rephrased my e-mail. I talked about the donation exchange as if it was natural for the season of giving. Now that was more like it. With a simple turn of phrase, I spliced commercially amplified holiday gift-giving onto an authentic, longer-standing, equally powerful American tradition – philanthropy.

Everyone in my gift-giving circle decided to play along. Was it my new way of putting it across? Was it because it was consistent with their values?  Was it because sending a check is tons easier than buying a gift? Or maybe it was because I didn’t give them a choice! I don’t know. But I remember that first holiday of the donation exchange well.

I remember the relief of not having to go holiday shopping. My girlfriend Andrea (now wife) did a donation exchange with her family too. This freed us both from the hecticness of the holidays. We spent the time relaxing. We caught up on sleep. We went to a Japanese steam bath. We read. We watched movies. We cooked. We went on dates. We made social calls. And we reflected on the past and upcoming year. Our new holiday tradition freed up the time needed to close the year in a restorative and reverent way.

Based on this experience alone, I was 100% sold. But there was more.

Much to my surprise, the exchange was a bonding civic experience for my family. I know, that sounds weird, but hear me out. Up to that point, I didn’t even know if my kin supported causes. I found out through the exchange that most of them supported at least a couple of causes. Their choices revealed a side of them I hadn’t seen before. And I learned new things about the world through the exchange. For instance, my brother Sean shared this with me:

A neighbor of ours recently found out their two children have Myotonic Muscular Dystrophy which has no known treatment let alone cure…the family is raising money for the few folks who are researching this disease…UVA [University of Virginia] has had some promising results on a razor-thin budget so we wanted to help. Carson and Addison have been collecting coins to help out…truly grassroots.

And I got this from my father, a retired Naval officer, Cold War warrior, and a Baptist preacher.

This makes sense [the donation exchange] and is in the spirit of the season. Our charity this year is Edna. Her situation is very dire as validated by our recent visit.

Edna is a family friend who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Through the exchange, I learned about the devastation in Biloxi, Mississippi where she lives.

This part of the exchange was a revelation. I hadn’t expected it to deepen my connection to either my family or the world through the exchange. I just wanted out of holiday shopping!

The benefits of a holiday donation exchange

Another unexpected benefit was that it helped me meet my board of director outreach and fundraising obligations for the nonprofits I serve. The donation exchange gave me an easy way to make progress on both fronts.

Looking back, I see this change as a milestone in my transition from a consumer to a citizen. It was an important step in creating a lifestyle focused on contribution to the common good, a path I continue on today. The satisfaction I got from it and the multiple purposes it served confirmed I was onto something. And encouraged me to look for other ways to redesign my life for shareability.

This holiday season is the tenth year of our donation exchange. Since the first exchange, my family has raised thousands of dollars for causes. We’ve learned about the issues that touch each other’s lives. We’ve included our children in the exchange to introduce them to give. And it’s still as relaxing as ever.

How to start a holiday donation exchange

A donation exchange isn’t for everyone. Holiday gift-giving can be fun, rewarding, and practical. However, if you feel a little like I did five years ago, I encourage you to give it a try. It’s also a great way to give if you can’t physically get together with family. And there’s no better time to give. There’s a lot of need out there because of the economy.

Below are a few tips. Keep in mind that these tips are for donation exchanges through the mail or the Internet. I’ve never done a face-to-face exchange.

  • Communicate your plan early in October before family members have the chance to buy you a typical gift. Here is an adaptation of the e-mail I sent this year. Feel free to change it for your situation.
  • State clearly that the donation exchange is in place of traditional gift giving. Ask them politely to not buy you gifts.
  • If you support many causes, then limit the choices you offer to three. Too much choice can lead to indecision. Pick from your causes those you think your family would be most interested in.
  • Let participants know how you want them to give. If you want them to give directly to your causes, then include links to donation pages or mailing addresses. If you’d like to deliver the donations yourself, then ask them to mail donations to you.
  • Include a short blurb about each cause along with links to websites. Make it easy for participants to learn about your causes. The exchange is an educational opportunity.
  • Create an opportunity to talk about causes in the exchange when you’re together with family or by phone.

If someone in your exchange needs ideas for causes, you can direct them to Charity Navigator, Change.org, or Care2. If you’d like to support Shareable directly, consider listing us as a cause, becoming a monthly contributor or giving a one-time donation today.

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Neal Gorenflo


Neal Gorenflo | |

Neal Gorenflo is the co-founder and board president of Shareable, an award-winning nonprofit news, action network, and consultancy for the sharing transformation. An epiphany in 2004 inspired Neal to

Things I share: Time with friends and family, stories, laughs, books, tools, ideas, nature, resources, passions, my network.