Convince family to let me help others?
December 14, 2007 1:52 PM   Subscribe

Should I try to convince my aunt that one person's Christmas present can make a difference?

Every year, my family does a Secret Santa gift exchange. We all draw names out of a hat, and then everyone sends their wish lists out by email. This year, I wrote a letter explaining how in my travels through Latin America I had met people living in dire poverty, and that it had affected me so much that the only thing I wanted for Christmas was a gift that might help such people. I included a link to Heifer International.

I then got an email from an aunt. She said that it was great that I wanted to help others, but we family members don't see each other very often, and Christmas is a time for us to share things with each other and forget about the rest of the world for a little while. She then said, "It's unfortunate, but the world is not going to change with one person's Christmas gift." She asked that I please please please make my Secret Santa happy and let him/her get me a "real" gift.

I can understand my aunt's point of view. My family is not religious or wealthy, and Christmas is basically a time for us to get together, eat yummy food and spoil each other with some gifts. I suspect that asking for a gift like mine might make the others feel guilty about their own wish lists.

Should I stick with my family's traditions? Or should I try to convince my aunt that one person's gift can make a difference?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total)
We've had this debate in our family many times. There is no right answer, and my family has actually done a gift exchange that was a donation only.

My opinion is that you should donate to whatever charity you want whenever you want, if you don't want someone to "spoil" you with a gift, then you should ask for something practical that you would have bought anyway, and then make your donation.
posted by Packy_1962 at 1:57 PM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

You can honor your family tradition as well as soliciting a few bucks from each of them toward your cause, can't you? Maybe if everyone kicked in $5 instead of buying a stocking stuff, for instance. Your aunt has a point and there is such a thing as compassion fatigue. You get hit up at work, when you shop, in the newspaper, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and at some point shut down on the whole charity thing. Family traditions are important and you might have better luck instituting a new holiday tradition if you also honor the one in place. Good luck.
posted by 45moore45 at 1:58 PM on December 14, 2007

Maybe you shouldn't convince her that one gift can make a difference, just that a donation to Heifer International in your name is what you really want for Christmas.
posted by studentbaker at 2:01 PM on December 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

My in-laws instituted a great new Xmas tradition a few years ago -- it's a secret santa exchange, but with a $50 limit. The twist is that you can spend up to $25 on the present, and then you donate $25 to your favorite charity. At Christmas, you tell people about the charity you've chosen to donate to that year, and why. I think it is very cool, and respects the desires of those that want to exchange traditional gifts while still doing a bit of good.

You may not be able to change the entire exchange process, but perhaps you could suggest that your secret santa get you something small & practical, and donate any remainder of what they might have spent to the charity? I would suggest writing a thoughtful explanation of why it's important to you, and that it would actually mean a lot to you, but it sounds like you did that already and have been kind of...ignored. As far as I'm concerned, a gift is for the giftee, not the giver, and that anyone looking to share the holiday spirit should be thinking of what would bring their giftee joy (even if it's not something they understand themselves), but traditions are a hard thing to tangle with, and it sounds like your aunt is particularly entrenched.
posted by tigerbelly at 2:06 PM on December 14, 2007

I love Heifer International too. I think it's totally fine that you asked for that for your present. And it sounds like you were open to the idea of another charity that helps people in poverty, if your secret santa felt like putting a little personal effort into it. It's just as valid a "wish list" as something material that you can keep at home.

Don't try to convince your aunt that one person's gift can make a difference. I think that might come across as condescending.

Try to convince your aunt that this is actually what you want, for yourself, more than a wallet or a tie or anything else. That it would make you really happy as much as a video game would have made you happy when you were at a different stage in your life. Tell her that this gift would "spoil" you and make you feel special.
posted by tk at 2:10 PM on December 14, 2007

make your aunt happy, give it up
posted by matteo at 2:26 PM on December 14, 2007

Here's why I agree with your aunt:

--Charity is very personal. People have different beliefs about what does and does not help the world. It is a good topic to avoid, like religion. What if your aunt had asked you to donate to Focus on the Family, for example? Maybe if you had let them choose the charity, they would feel better about it, but as it is, you're pressuring them to support a charity that they haven't researched and don't necessarily support.

--If the gift-giver had more than one option, they might have been able to get a great deal on something, or do some extra research on comparative sock prices at K-mart vs Wal-Mart, and saved a little money while still getting you one of the things that you wanted. This doesn't give them that opportunity. You don't really know how strapped people are financially, and it would have been kind of you to give them a few options, some much less expensive than others or easy to home-make.

--A charity donation is cut and dried cash with a dollar sign attached, and some people feel very uncomfortable giving that as a gift.

--It kinda makes the people who asked for socks, a calendar, or a funny DVD feel like you think they're shallow assholes, just because they went along with the family tradition and tried to be good sports.

--You said: I suspect that asking for a gift like mine might make the others feel guilty about their own wish lists. You have no way of knowing this, and you have no way of knowing what they do to help other people in their daily life or around the holidays because, unlike you, they're not trying to force other people to participate in their charity.

I appreciate your attempt to make the world a little better, and I know you had good intentions, but in this case, I would suggest that you amend your request and ask for a few more things, as well as a donation. That way they have a choice.

If they get you socks instead of 1/48th of a heifer, so be it.
posted by sondrialiac at 2:28 PM on December 14, 2007 [3 favorites]

Of course one donation can make a difference, but why would you ask other people to make that donation? I like Packy_1962 suggestion: ask for useful things that you would buy anyway and donate as much as you can yourself.

Try to convince your aunt that this is actually what you want, for yourself, more than a wallet or a tie or anything else. That it would make you really happy as much as a video game would have made you happy when you were at a different stage in your life
This may work, but only if you really are a different person now without wordly attachments. If you ask for a charity donation because there is really nothing you want more, but then suddenly own an iPod or new clothes a month later, people may wonder why charity was very important when they wanted to buy you something, but not now.

On preview: I agree with everything sondrialiac said.
posted by davar at 2:47 PM on December 14, 2007

Maybe you should do nothing, and let your email stand. It's not up to your aunt to dictate what you want. And as for having fun, if I were in your family and drew your name, you would get your donation but you would also probably get a little plastic cow or somthing, for the giggle factor.
posted by konolia at 2:52 PM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

What's more real? A physical object you won't appreciate or a gift that goes to someone else but actually means something to you? I agree with tk, the approach you should take is that this is the gift you'll appreciate, whether she understands it or not. FYI my uncle's family has given mine a gift to Heifer, Int. in our names & we like it too.
posted by scalefree at 2:55 PM on December 14, 2007

Pretty much everything sondrialiac said.

Charity gifts only work if the recipient wants it and the giver wants to give it. And a lot of people, even good-hearted people who donate to charities on their own time, are so enmeshed in the shiny-wrapped-box idea of gift giving that it just seems weird to them to give something that isn't an actual usable object. So we (myself included) go on ridiculous quests to find that perfect gadget or trinket, even though half the time the recipient finds it dorky/gimmicky/useless and shoves it in their closet, even though the recipient really genuinely wanted that donation in their name.

It's taken me a few years to come around on the charity gift thing. I gave a Heifer donation as a gift last year, and drove my mother batty with the subsequent "So you like it? My water buffalo donation? Really? You really like the water buffalo??" It's just something that I've had to learn gradually, after giving years of gifts that people didn't really use, and years of asking what people wanted only to get "I don't actually need anything" and "how about a donation?" I still prefer to give objects, but I'm much more open to donations as gifts.

I'd imagine other people might take a while to reach the conclusions I did, and it's really better to let them do it on their own rather than try and convince them. If you don't get your water buffalo this year, just keep Heifer and a few other charities you like at the top of your wish list for future holidays and birthdays. People will eventually grow accustomed to the idea that this really is what you want.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:02 PM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I can get your aunt's point. The whole family is sitting around with their new presents, but you don't have anything, and are sort of the martyr who has done the morally superior thing by foregoing material things and giving your Christmas gift to charity.

I would do something along the lines of what tigerbelly was saying and maybe ask them to split the difference. Have them get you something that costs less and give whatever is left of to charity. But also remember, you don't really have a right to dictate what someone gives you for Christmas, so if your aunt doesn't want to adhere to your wishlist, I think it's kind of her prerogative.
posted by whoaali at 3:25 PM on December 14, 2007

I tried to get everyone to donate to *their* favorite charity instead of giving me stuff one year, and they absolutely refused. So once again I got a lot of ugly Xmas and regular socks. If your secret santa really has a problem with your suggestion, they'll get you something else. *shrug* Some people don't understand.
posted by notsnot at 3:43 PM on December 14, 2007

I think the sort of problem with giving a donation, rather than a gift, especially at Christmas, is you eliminate the fun of opening the gifts and seeing people surprised and that whole sort of tradition. While someone may appreciate the donation, it isn't exactly fun or exciting. Now if you want to eliminate giving gifts for Christmas, then fair enough, but I think that has to be decided by the whole family, not one person.

I feel that asking for donations instead of gifts, is probably more appropriate at evens like weddings or birthdays, because it's your event and you're in a position to eliminate that tradition unilaterally, but you aren't in that position during Christmas.
posted by whoaali at 3:57 PM on December 14, 2007

A donation in your name, as much as the charity industry has tried to convince us otherwise, is really not a gift in the normal sense. You can jump outside accepted etiquette if both the giver and the recipient are okay with that, but if the giver wants to give you something -- something you'll keep and remember them by, something you'll cherish, something that expresses their feelings about you, something that doesn't explicitly say 'I spent $50 on this' -- then they should have that chance.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:57 PM on December 14, 2007

I think you should leave it on your wish list, but add a couple other ideas of things that you would use... By giving them only one request (that is, charity) it doesn't give the giver very much choice, and a gift is just as much about the giver as well as the receiver. Even if they genuinely would want to give this to you, when it's the only thing you ask for, it takes them out of the equation, which may lessen their gift giving experience.
posted by everybody polka at 4:47 PM on December 14, 2007

i would request donations to charity as your gift, but give your recipient what he/she wants. if others feel guilty, well, maybe next year they'll do something differently.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:57 PM on December 14, 2007

I like studentbaker's response. Make sure people know you want a "charity gift" (I gave someone an "Oxfam Unwrapped" gift this year.) and, just like every year, some people will get you what you want and some people will get you what they want.

Avoid the lecture and/or guilt trip.
posted by krisjohn at 5:10 PM on December 14, 2007

i would request donations to charity as your gift, but give your recipient what he/she wants. if others feel guilty, well, maybe next year they'll do something differently.

Yes, nothing says Christmas, quite like a nice big helping of guilt from your family!
posted by whoaali at 5:12 PM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Should I stick with my family's traditions? Or should I try to convince my aunt that one person's gift can make a difference?

You cannot force someone to give you what you want them to, even if the gift is a charitable donation. It's rude. It's perfectly proper to ask for what you want if someone asks (free of guilt trips!) But if you ask for something, and someone gives you something else, the only correct response is "Thank you!"
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:08 PM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

The thing about a gift being a charitable donation is that it does kinda negate the gift part - it's saying, I want your gift to me to be a gift to someone else instead. There are multiple aspects people may be uncomfortable with.

There's the controlly aspect - I will make you give money to my charity - but if you're doing wish lists already, it can just be one suggestion on a wish list, and if your secret santa feels the way you do, they can choose it, or if they don't, they can choose something else, just like with other gifts. The charitable donation sometimes feels a little more controlling than asking for a certain DVD or whatever since it often has a certain political or ideological association of some sort, even the ones that try to be neutral (there's a sense of, is it more hippy neutral or churchy neutral).

ANd second, there's sometimes a feeling that the person asking for it is trying to be morally superior or trying to make a point. Otherwise why not just donate the money personally and ask for a book /DVD / new shirt etc? Unless you're claiming that you'll never buy a new item like that, some people may imagine you only have rude or guilt trippy motives for bringing up the donation at this time.

But I don't know that it has to work that way - the idea of making all gifts half fun toy, half donation is a nice one, and if your whole family were into it, could work out well. Or you could start a separate family fundraising campaign to make a group donation to the charity, and just do the secret santa thing like usual. People often really do feel good when they collectively help out, so if you can make it a more collective effort, it might join folks together rather than making some members feel alienated.

As for how much difference one person's help makes, you don't even wanna start that argument! If you want your gift to be a donation, don't do it to save the world - do it because you really personally enjoy the feeling of seeing your personal tiny little drop go into the bucket.
posted by mdn at 9:51 PM on December 14, 2007

If a charitable donation is what you really want, but your aunt takes issue with that because she/others "want" to give you a gift, then it has stopped being about making the receiver happy, and is edging into self-fulfillment. At that point you may have to ask yourself if this is a battle you want to fight: pointing out to her that she's more interested in doing what she wants than doing what you want, so the gift is no longer about making you happy, but making her happy, or looking at it as a larger, family-happiness sort of thing, and acquiescing for the enjoyment of the group.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 11:30 PM on December 14, 2007

I think you've done a good thing already by bringing the conversation into your family. I've done a bit of that in my own family and we're gradually edging towards making the holiday not completely about unnecessary material objects for their own sake. No matter what the outcome, good on you for that. Don't get steamrolled into giving up things that are important to you just because it might make someone uncomfortable about their own values.
posted by loiseau at 6:53 AM on December 15, 2007

If a charitable donation is what you really want, but your aunt takes issue with that because she/others "want" to give you a gift, then it has stopped being about making the receiver happy, and is edging into self-fulfillment.

Umm, yeah.

Gifts given should make both the donor and the recipient happy. It's not a question of 'happiest they could possibly be', because in that case, I'm putting 'ferrari' on my wishlist, and screw the fact that it's my mother's life savings paying for it; just something that both of them are relatively good with. Unless there's absolutely nothing else that the recipient could receive that would make them happy or at least not miserable, and giving the donation would really make the giver unhappy, then either they shouldn't exchange gifts, or the recipient should suck it up and let the giver spend their own money how they want to.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:14 AM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think it is perfectly okay of you to ask for something that isn't of direct benefit to you. To me, buying you a present when you have asked for a donation to be made instead is a double injury--someone could have benefited from that donation and you ended up with something you didn't want/need. I say stick to your guns. And after all, this was one aunt that emailed you, not the whole family. The idea that the gift must be pleasing to both the giver and the recipient is odd to me--I can think of lots of times that Santa brought me things that wouldn't have been high on my parents' list.

This was a lesson I had to learn a few years ago. My brother insists that exchanging gifts is not something that he wants to partcipate in, but giving gifts is important to me. So unless there is something that he actually needs, I donate in his name. A couple of years ago it was a flock of ducks from Heifer; this year it's a gift certificate from Kiva. It's not what *I* would ask for for Christmas, but I want it to be something that will make *him* happy.
posted by wallaby at 12:23 PM on December 15, 2007

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