An office activity to mark the season of giving
November 2, 2017 3:42 AM   Subscribe

No one at the office is particularly interested in doing a gift exchange this year because it seems frivolous. The part that feels good is the giving, but receiving a gag gift or candles, socks or wine doesn't do anything for us. Instead we'd like to give physical gifts to people in need and I am way overthinking the logistics.

There are fewer than 10 of us. A fair spending cap would be 20 USD per person. Our holiday party is super low-key: The office will have decorations all month (not red and green, but more of a festive-solstice blue theme), and during a routine weekly meeting we will devote an hour or two to marking the holiday season.

In the past, a white elephant exchange was attempted. It was OK, but mostly "meh." Conversations about exchanging names for a Secret Santa were mostly like, "I'm willing. Whatever is fine," mixed with a lot of, "meh. I don't need more junk from people who don't know what I like."

Planning this year's low-key celebration falls very obviously and entirely to me due to my position, and I want to start an ongoing tradition that people feel good about; they'll enjoy being stuck at this meeting because we're giving gloves to a shelter, or putting together care packages, or...? Picture: we're eating cupcakes and doing something charitable (an activity) for which we've all contributed ~$20. Any idea what that might look like? What has your office done that seems worthwhile?

The alternative may be, actually, to do nothing and really not celebrate the holidays at all. This is a viable option, but it also seems a wasted opportunity. Like I said, I'm hoping to start a tradition that will outlast me. People will proudly say, "Every year, we [take an hour or two to do this cool, interactive, low-key thing in the spirit of giving]." NB: we all like each other and have huge, caring hearts and no particular fondness for Christmas or materialism.

I really like the care package idea, but not sure how to pull it off. I'm open to any ideas for making this meeting/party a success. Please help me simplify my thoughts around this and point me towards some resources.
posted by shocks connery to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
maybe simply go shopping together for children's toys and then take them over to a donation site?
posted by thelonius at 4:00 AM on November 2, 2017

Why not just donate the money to a cause and have a nice lunch offered at the office? (Or breakfast/coffee time depending on when the meeting is)
posted by bquarters at 4:02 AM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think what you seek is the shared activity, producing a tangible result, and the associated team spirit and camaraderie that brings. So just donating "blindly" is not enough.

Is there a local food bank you could volunteer at as a group? Or a Ronald McDonald house? Most volunteer-dependent charitable organizations would love to have your help. Downtown churches or shelters always need "hygiene packs" of toothpaste, tampons, socks etc. and other toiletries to hand out. You would be amazed at how much $100-200 could buy in terms of putting together a bunch of handouts like that.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:08 AM on November 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

We each brought in a favorite children's book to donate to a local literacy program. Each of us talked about why we liked the books we brought in. It was a lot more fun than buying stuff we didn't need for each other.

This was my idea, but unfortunately, I floated it with a coworker first, and she went and told our boss it was this great idea she had. So if you want credit, keep in mind that people who seem perfectly nice are sometimes really shitty.
posted by FencingGal at 5:09 AM on November 2, 2017 [12 favorites]

Is it helpful to look at what local charities are doing and what kinds of help they are asking for?

Every year some friends and I "adopt" some kids from a local program. They give us a list of kids, their sizes, and what they want/need. If you can find something like that, then each team member could buy a gift, and then you could use the time set aside to wrap your gifts - maybe with hot cocoa and cookies and Bing Crosby in the background.
posted by bunderful at 5:15 AM on November 2, 2017 [8 favorites]

I know someone who did a volunteer activity at a conference, in a hotel, and it sounded like a good bonding activity too. Couldn't remember specifically what it was -- it involved everybody getting pieces of something and assembling it, and it sounded like it might be genuinely useful -- so I searched for [team building volunteer ideas assembling] and came up with a couple of good articles:

When Employees Want to Volunteer But It’s Tough to Leave the Office

7 Teambuilding Activities With Philanthropic Tie-Ins

The search results looked promising -- lots of articles/posts on this topic. Maybe try using geographic terms to get something for your area.


I get that a lot of this stuff could be done by paid staff, and that it's easy to do a feel-good activity and then believe that you're not obligated to do other things to help your community -- so these types of things could be seen as not that great. I think it's possible, though, that a lot of people just feel helpless and give up trying to help at all, and that feeling good is not a terrible thing.

More than that, though, exposure to organizations like this, and actual participation with one's own hands, could link people with the world of people-helping-people in a way that encourages them to think further about it, to research further, and to maybe get involved more.

A world in which the only way you can help others is by giving them money -- or worse, only ever by giving money to faceless organizations -- is a cold world. It seems to imply that money is all that matters, and if you don't have money, you are useless to other people. An activity where people do things that are _useful_ is an important antidote to that idea.

You can address the potential for people to think "I've done one thing and that's all I have to do" with carefully chosen words before, during, or after whatever activity you choose.
posted by amtho at 5:17 AM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Things that would be fun to do as an activity together:

Do the "hygeine packs" and assemble them together
Do adopt-a-family and wrap the gifts together.
posted by Miko at 5:45 AM on November 2, 2017

Adopt a family is really fun and a team building exercise - it’s what my daughters’ school is doing and they are all excited about it.

You could also “adopt a town” if you wanted and send supplies to Puerto Rico.
posted by corb at 6:24 AM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Does a local organization do the giving tree? Our Y does one related to the kids in our school district. You can call and ask them.

You could plan an afternoon where you all go down to said organization, everyone picks one (or more) tags with the age and sex/gender of the child, you all go shopping for the items on the tag, and then you altogether bring everything back to the Y (or other organization) staff. You can also buy more than requested for the tag. I once got a tag for a one year old girl where the request was "blankets." I bought three blankets, two outfits, a pair of regular shoes, and a pair of funky fancy shoes, and a teddy bear.

This can be especially fun if there are big ticket items like a gaming system for a team---some can pitch in to buy the system and others can load up on video games. If someone requests a bike, well, the kid will need a helmet, too, etc. I think anyone whose main goal is to feel good about giving will definitely feel good when the organization staff see the "overboard" part of the requests.
posted by zizzle at 6:49 AM on November 2, 2017

Response by poster: The hygiene pack or care pack was what I initially had in mind, to be conducted in the style of a giving tree, but in planning what this would actually look like it became overly-complicated. We won’t be leaving the office. Our resources are defined more as a one- to two-hour in house meeting. If not for that, then volunteering or otherwise bumbling about town would be great—That’s just not in the cards.

If anyone has a vision of pulling off a care pack in a pretty simple fashion, that’s what I’m hoping for.

My favorite suggestion so far is the children’s book idea!

I appreciate all the ideas. Thank you!!!
posted by shocks connery at 7:59 AM on November 2, 2017

Our resources are defined more as a one- to two-hour in house meeting.

What's the logistical barrier? If you do the homelessness care package, one way I might tackle this is to assign individuals to bring in multiples (however many fit in the budget, 10, 15, 20 whatever) of a single item type: Ali gets toothpaste, Bob gets deodorant, Celia gets Kind bars, etc. Then everyone brings in their multiples, you put them in a line, provide a box of gallon ziplocs, and everyone goes down the line to pack a kit containing 1 item from each pile until they're all done. Play festive music, eat snacks, badda bing badda boom. At the end of the day someone takes all the finished packs to the shelter (or wherever they go).
posted by Miko at 8:43 AM on November 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Similar to the book idea, what we've done in my office was: Draw names, secret-Santa style. You buy a toy for the person who's name you've drawn. The toy can be something you think they'll like, or something that reminds you of them. Wrap it up, place under the tree.

Unwrap the gifts together at the office. Chat and laugh about the gifts, then donate them to a toy drive. You just have to have the party early enough to meet the deadlines for local toy drives.

You get to buy, wrap, and unwrap a gift without having to take home unwanted crap.
posted by hydra77 at 9:45 AM on November 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

This will totally depend on what’s going on in your area, but we did something pretty cool last year on my team. There is a local family center that hosts a gingerbread house competition. They auction the gingerbread houses and the money goes to charity.

We made 3 gingerbread houses to donate and it was super fun.

Also, at our yearly divisional holiday party teams put together baskets that are raffled off and the money is donated to charity. This has also been pretty fun.
posted by MadMadam at 11:01 AM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

We did something like this with a local senior center a few months ago. We asked the staff what people need, they said socks, small towels, travel size toiletries. So we got some reusable grocery bags, asked everyone to collect travel sized toiletries, and then bought big packs of socks and hand towels. We also cleared out some obsolete marketing stuff we had in storage: key-chain flashlights, mini notepad and pen sets, baseball caps.

We spread all the stuff out on the conference table and made an assembly line, each person had a bunch of stuff in front of them and would put a thing it a bag and pass the bag to their left. Every bag got socks, a towel, a toothbrush and three assorted toiletries and then two other random things.

Then we spend an afternoon at the center, running games and giving out the bags as prizes (no one got two bags and there were enough for everyone). I got to call a game of bingo and referee a ping pong tournament.
posted by buildmyworld at 11:40 AM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

If anywhere nearby you has a giving tree type thing going on, you could pull a few donation requests from it, then bring those in to the office and have people choose something to bring in from the overall list. This way you're avoiding the actual logistical part of organizing it, but you know that your donations are going somewhere where they're wanted.
posted by augustimagination at 12:13 PM on November 2, 2017

Is your party before Christmas? I know someone who has a Secret Santa at their often for people in need. They partner with a local organization and get a list of families who needs stuff. There is a profile for each person in the family, i.e. "12 year-old girl, size M, needs hoodies and warm clothes" etc. Everyone in my friend's office picks a person on the list and gets them a Christmas gift. So everyone could bring their gifts to your party, and then someone could take them all and drop them off at the organization so the family can get them on Christmas morning. This isn't as much of a group activity, but it does accomplish something very specific for people you know will count on whatever you guys get them.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:30 PM on November 2, 2017

Do a giving tree ahead of time, the way you'd do a gift exchange. So you're doing a "secret santa," but your targets are the kids whose names you get from whatever org you get them from. Each person gets their assigned giftee ahead of time and then everyone comes in and you have a wrapping party (if you don't have to deliver the gifts unwrapped) where you make the packages super-fancy. And you get to admire everyone's choice in hats and mittens and books and plastic toys the kids begged for.
posted by gideonfrog at 3:46 PM on November 2, 2017

I've used the method Miko describes above for a few different projects - although I prefer passing bags around for each person to fill with the items at their station. With the right prep work and organization you can do a TON of these in a very short amount of time.
posted by bunderful at 4:28 PM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

To switch up the gift exchange in the past co-workers and I have done a Secret Santa gift exchange where you buy a toy you think that the co-worker you're assigned would have liked as a child, then you donate the toys to a shelter/hospital/community organization. You could spend the hour wrapping them if the organization accepts wrapped gifts.

Similar to the homelessness care packages, you could do Christmas stocking for kids at the local hospital or shelter. Assign people items to bring in by type or child and assemble the stocking as a team. Or make shoe box care packages with someone bringing in candy, someone else soap, someone else small toys etc and assemble the shoe boxes at your meeting.
posted by Lay Off The Books at 5:35 PM on November 2, 2017

I work at a community mental health agency for children, and we have lovely and appreciated groups of folks who come in and make "Heavy Helpers" for us, stuffed animals that have had some aquarium gravel stitched aside them for young children to hold to calm their bodies down when activated (such as by fight or flight response.) The kiddos love them and need them. If there's a similar agency near you, you could call their development director and offer this. They're easy to make and if each person did a couple, that's a lot of soothed and happy kiddos.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 9:41 PM on November 2, 2017

The Pajama Program is pretty amazing. They might have a chapter near you where you can donate as a group. Each person chooses a pair of pajamas and a favorite bedtime book to be given to a child in need. It can be for a boy or girl, various ages.

I found out about it when the Girl Scout and Brownie Troops from our entire town got together to do it a couple years ago. They had a huge, very successful turn out. I was really heartbroken when I read that some of these kids have never had their own pair of pajamas before. I think I actually donated a few pair and had my kid choose the books.
posted by dancinglamb at 5:49 AM on November 3, 2017

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