Holiday gift giving: But Mom didn’t want a goat

(Credit: Liz West/Flickr)

Various charitable organizations believe they have the perfect last-minute gift ideas – ‘symbolic gifts’ such as soccer balls, clean water or a flock of chicks, purchased online, let you print colorful cards from home, or even have an ecard sent directly to your intended recipient (“I bought a goat for you”).

But are these the right gifts for everyone on your holiday list? Research suggests practical trumps the exotic, but if your intended has some affiliation to the charity in question, it’s definitely something to consider.

Ernest Baskin, a marketing professor at Saint Joseph’s University who has studied gift-giving, believes that with symbolic gifts, the giver certainly feels good for having donated money to charity, but he says “it’s unclear to me whether the receiver, who sees a card that says you gave a goat, gets that benefit too.”

Numerous studies have found that recipients are far more appreciative of gifts that they requested than those they did not. The trouble comes when the giver decides he or she doesn’t want to stick to the recipient’s list, believing that an unsolicited gift will be considered more thoughtful (Hint: that usually isn’t the case).

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Most gift givers just want to make the receiver happy. Ironically, Baskin said, “My research suggests in trying to do that they essentially fail.”

Baskin’s field of study is choice architecture, and he’s fascinated by how people’s “mispredictions” in a given situation influence actual outcomes. His research shows gift receivers far prefer more practical gifts, whereas gift givers tend toward what they perceive as desirable gifts, even if they are less practical overall.

Some people do ask for charitable donations in lieu of gifts, and in that case, there is a direct link between the receiver’s wants and the giver’s charitable donation, so both people accrue the psychological benefits of charitable giving.

Baskins thinks the iconic tote bags that National Public Radio offers donors are a great example of combining something useful with a charitable gift. As for symbolic holiday gifts, Baskin suggests, “If there was something similarly practical they could receive along with the card saying a donation was made in their name, then in future when they looked at the product, they would feel good about it over the long-term.”

If a symbolic gift is right for someone on your list, a combination of the symbolic and practical might be the best way to go. You may, for example, want to give “a hive of bees” from Mercy Corps, paired with Sunny Honey’s handmade cinnamon and orange honey soap from Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market. Or offer “a pair of sheep” from Oxfam, combined with a pair of handmade wool socks from Etsy.

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For the charities themselves, year-end donations from individuals represent a huge percentage of the annual contributions that they take in. Charity Navigator, an evaluator of charities, reported that among those it polled in 2011, most receive an average of 41 percent of their annual donations in the last few weeks of December. Likely due to convenience, online giving to charities seems to be strongest during the holidays. According to Charity Navigator, Network for Good, a company that provides online fundraising software to nonprofits, processes 10 percent of yearly donations in just the last two days of the year.

Before you click “proceed to checkout” you might want to think twice about whether your mom really wants that goat.

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About Author

Andie Long

Andie is a writer and PR/marketing consultant, based in Seattle. She focuses on inclusive solutions to poverty and climate change. She's also a certified game designer. Follow her on Twitter @andielong