The challenge of gift-giving

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It’s a really cold winter…maybe something warm, fun and colorful?

This was a funny/telling piece recently in the Men’s Styles section of The New York Times:

“The older I get, the more anxiety I feel about gift giving,” said Mr. York, a 48-year-old executive at a nonprofit company in Brooklyn. “It’s a huge amount of stress, and it will go on for several weeks, until about five or six days before Christmas. The more Christmases that pile on, there is more anxiety.”

For men like Mr. York, who try to do the right thing, the very idea of giving and receiving gifts can spur feelings of failure and self-doubt.

I’ve rarely seen such crazy anxiety as when I worked three holiday seasons as a sales associate for The North Face in an upscale suburban mall in New York, near my home here.

It started at Thanksgiving when holiday shoppers started panicking, and ratcheted up to truly stupendous levels as Christmas approached.

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Music? Hers is great stuff, from the 80s’…

What if I get someone the wrong thing?

What if they hate it?

I have no idea what they’d even like!

I admit, I did see more of this panic in male shoppers, like the man who (!) asked me what his 14-year-old daughter would like.

Problems:

— I was far from 14

— I have no kids or nieces of any age

— She’s your daughter, dude!

None of which, of course, I said to him. I probed gently as to what sort of girl she was and tried my best to be helpful. But, honestly, I found it sad and weird he had no idea what might make her happy.

Another man, frantically pawing through the ski jackets, yelped: “I need to find a present for a pain in the ass!”

Yup.

We all do, kids.

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For anyone you know who loves travel or aviation — or just gorgeous prose — get this!

In the 16 years Jose and I have been together, he’s given me wonderful Christmas gifts, everything from a colander and toaster (I was so broke that year!) to gorgeous earrings. The only dud? Snowshoes.

Snowshoes?!

Our gifts tend to be fairly traditional: clothing, jewelry, books, music and always a present “for the house” — pretty new dishes or glassware or kitchen tools.

This year, we set a very tight dollar limit for one another and yet I’ve been able to find a fun variety of things I think he’ll really enjoy.

The secret of choosing a great gift?

You need to know the person well.

The panic sets in when you’re buying for people you don’t really know at all, nor their favorite/hated colors or textures, what they own (or want to own), their current sizes, etc.

Even worse are the gifts we end up buying, often at the very last minute when we’re tired, cranky and already over-budget, out of sheer obligation, sometimes for people we don’t even like very much.

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One of my favorite Paris shops — scarves and mufflers in every possible color

As someone who was the grim recipient of too many of these — like the books with the big black streak on them, the stigmata of the remaindered (i.e. cheap) — not to mention discarded free cosmetic samples — just don’t!

(When someone has no money, of course a gift is anything they offer with love. When someone has plenty of money but no heart or attention to detail? That can feel mean.)

 

I posted an extensive list of ideas here recently, so click through for some last-minute ideas.

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Give a quality newspaper subscription! Facts matter now more than ever before.

And, maybe the best gift of all right now, is a donation to your favorite charity, domestic or global…

 

Want to help those fleeing Aleppo? Here’s a link to donate….

And seven more.

 

What’s the best holiday gift you’ve ever gotten?

The worst?

How to be an everyday philanthropist — Jennifer Iacovelli’s new book

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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The word “philanthropist”, for me anyway, conjures up an image of someone with huge wealth, multiple mansions, a private jet. Someone who has so much money they don’t know what to do with it all.

The sort of people whose names cross PBS’ screen when they highlight the network’s biggest donors.

Certainly not most of us, right?

A new book, Simple Giving, Easy Ways to Give Every Day, written by Jennifer Iacovelli, a mother of two in Brunswick, Maine, working in the non-profit world for years — and a longtime devoted philanthropist — offers a new and different perspective.

Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to help feed their family
Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to help feed their family

I met her for the first time, in March 2014, in the Atlanta airport, when we joined a multi-national, intergenerational, multi-media team heading to rural Nicaragua, to the poorest part of the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. We were going there to help tell stories about their work for WaterAid, a global charity whose sole North American project is in Nicaragua.

Neither of us had ever been there or worked together.

We hit it off immediately, which was lucky, since we spent 12-hour days for the next week working in 95-degree heat and traveling in a cramped van we often had to start with a good hard shove.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — Jen in the bow of a dugout canoe

She was fun, down-to-earth and someone whose passion for giving back really inspired me, and still does.

As she writes: “A small contribution can make a big difference in someone’s life.”

I read her book carefully and dog-eared dozens of pages in it. It offers six different “giving models”, from everyday acts of kindness, taking action on your passion to giving as a business model. “People often don’t know where or how to give.”

Yes, we all know the big charities, the ones with big advertising budgets…but where does our money go?

Is it being used in ways we respect?

Jen urges you to consider getting the most our of your giving by considering choice, connection and impact. (Do you all know about Guidestar? It is an extensive online database with every possible bit of information about a charity you might be giving to. Check it out first!)

Here’s my Q and A with her:

What’s your goal with this book?

My main goal with the book is to inspire people to think about giving in a different way. I hope it empowers people to recognize their own meaningful ways to give on a regular basis.

 Tell us a bit about your past:

I was born and raised in Massachusetts. I went to college at Syracuse University and graduated with a dual degree in Advertising and Psychology. Those majors blended my love for writing, creativity and fascination of human behavior.

I lived in Denver for a short period after graduating college and driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile for a summer. Made my way to Maine in 2000 and haven’t had the desire to live anywhere else since! (though I do love to travel!)
Was there any emphasis in your family of origin on giving?

Not necessarily. I saw my parents donate money to nonprofits here and there, but there wasn’t a big emphasis on giving or volunteering. I did volunteer a lot while in school. I was always helping out with class events, the yearbook, etc. My parents encouraged me to get involved.

 


 

“There are so many more ways to give than just blindly sending a check in the mail”


 

What prompted you to start giving…was there a precipitating event?

I started working in the nonprofit sector in 2005 because I was looking for more meaning in my work. I guess you could say I’ve always had the pull to give more but didn’t know what to do with it. That’s where I realized that there were so many more ways to give than just blindly sending a check in the mail. I also saw that many people didn’t quite know how to give in the most meaningful way. I would (and still do in my current position) re-direct people and educate them on how they could best help our mission.
What sort of reaction did you get when you told people you were making a public commitment on your blog about giving?

People were supportive, of course. But most encouraged me and didn’t necessarily join me. I did it, of course, to show my process and share what I learned. Hopefully it inspired others along the way. It was a great experience

Do your friends and family have the same passion for this as you?

Yes and no. I do have some very inspiring and giving friends who are featured in the book or on my blog. Others are simply soaking it in, which is great too. I’ve met so many passionate people through writing this book. It’s been amazing!

 


“It’s often those who have the least that give the biggest percentage of their income”


 

In your experience, has the recession affected Americans’ willingness or ability to give — either time or money?

I believe giving has gone down a bit, as has funding for nonprofits. People still give though. And it’s often those who has the least that give the biggest percentage of their income.

What was the most difficult/challenging part of writing the book?

Finding the time to put it all together! I had so many thoughts, ideas, interviews, stories, research, etc to weave together while going on with regular life as a mom, writer and entrepreneur. I also went through a divorce during the process. I would just find ways to disappear for a few days to concentrate only on the book. It’s was a challenging process but I can’t wait to do it again.
The most fun?

Seeing the final product! It honestly didn’t seem real until I could hold the book in my hands. What an amazing feeling.

How does it feel to become an author?

Indescribable. I accomplished a major life goal when I signed my book contract. I am proud to have a published book before I turn 40. It’s about the only thing that has left me speechless!

 

 

 

The challenge of giving away your money

By Caitlin Kelly

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Interesting piece in The New York Times recently about a college class that teaches students about philanthropy:

Vinay Sridharan must make it through microeconomic theory and the writings of Proust before the end of his senior year at Northwestern in June. But in one course, the final project is far less abstract: give away $50,000.

It is also far more difficult than it may seem.

This course in philanthropy, endowed with a grant from a Texas hedge fund manager, requires students to find and investigate nonprofit organizations and, if they stand up to scrutiny, give them a portion of the five-figure cash pot.

“I didn’t realize they had real money to give,” said Margaret Haywood, the director of work force development at the Inspiration Corporation, a Chicago charity that received $25,000 from the Northwestern students last year.

The workshop — and others like it that have sprung up in the last few years at a dozen universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Yale — offers a real-world experience of philanthropy that is rare in the cloistered halls of academia, and which otherwise is reserved for institutions and the affluent.

If you are fortunate enough to have income, and savings, beyond that needed for immediate basics — food, housing, health care, education, transportation, clothing — the question quickly arises:

How much, to whom and when will you give some of it away?

My working trip to Nicaragua in March with WaterAid, (which I blogged about here), introduced me to a terrific woman who is passionate about philanthropy and who blogs about it, Jennifer Iacovelli Barbour. Mother of two small boys, Jen lives in Maine — and the first time we met was in the Atlanta airport enroute to Managua, soon to share a small van in 95 degree heat for 12-hour days for a week. We had a blast!

Jennifer and I at Bilwi airport, after arriving in a 12-seater airplane.
Jennifer and I at Bilwi airport, after arriving in a 12-seater airplane.

It was such a tremendous pleasure to spend time with people who care so deeply about the work they are doing, and whose work is changing people’s lives for the better.

I also wrote recently about this question of legacy for the Times:

The decision-making process should begin with some philosophical questions, said Isabel Miranda, a partner in the Bloomfield, N.J., law firm Pearlman & Miranda. Ms. Miranda, a former bank trust officer, now specializes in helping clients plan their wills, trusts and estates.

“Who do I owe my success to? What values do I want to reflect? How do I want to pay back the organizations I believe in?” she said.

The subject is an interesting one, since not everyone has children to leave their assets to — we don’t and nor are we close to young cousins or nieces or nephews — and we’ll need to make thoughtful decisions about who are the best stewards of our hard-earned dollars.

In my case…I’m still not sure.

One organization I am passionate about, which supports the work of journalists who cover traumatic issues (war, violent crime, health, conflict) and helps them recover afterward is the Dart Center, so they’re on my radar already.

Sorry to say, I doubt my alma mater will get anything, as I found it sadly impersonal and bureaucratic, even if I did get a decent and affordable (Canadian) education.

One charity I now support with my time and skill is the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can grant up to $4,000 within a week to qualified non-fiction writers facing financial crisis. Please donate here!

Do you make charitable donations?

To whom and why?

 

 

Is being generous a smart move? (Is being a tight-fisted (^$@#*#?)

Is this really a question?

Apparently so…

From the cover story in this weekend’s New York Times Magzine, (for you non-journos’s, a spot so visible and prestigious some writers would {and possibly have} kill for).

It profiles Wharton professor Adam Grant, 31, whose compulsive generosity seems a little…weird…to the writer, who is, (I met her, competing on the same story), ferociously ambitious and competitive:

Grant might not seem so different from any number of accessible and devoted professors on any number of campuses, and yet when you witness over time the sheer volume of Grant’s commitments, and the way in which he is able to follow through on all of them, you start to sense that something profoundly different is at work. Helpfulness is Grant’s credo. He is the colleague who is always nominating another for an award or taking the time to offer a thoughtful critique or writing a lengthy letter of recommendation for a student — something he does approximately 100 times a year. His largess extends to people he doesn’t even know. A student at Warwick Business School in England recently wrote to express his admiration and to ask Grant how he manages to publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Grant did not think, upon reading that e-mail, I cannot possibly answer in full every such query and still publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Instead, Grant, who often returns home after a day of teaching to an in-box of 200 e-mails, responded, “I’m happy to set up a phone call if you want to discuss!”

Grant suggests we each fall into one of three categories: takers, matchers and givers.

Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf. Most people surveyed fall into the matcher category — but givers, Grant says, are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders…The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.

I find this question of professional generosity interesting — and always have. I’ve been a giver for decades.

Grants
Grants (Photo credit: Steve deBurque)

Oh, I’ve seen the looks of confusion or bemusement or pity when American colleagues — big-time takers, highly skilled matchers — see me giving away my time, expertise, contacts or skills.

The idea of actually helping a potential competitor best me, at anything, marks me, in zero-sum America, as slow-witted, a rube, someone who simply doesn’t know any better.

The default position, certainly in journalism in New York City, is to stab everyone in the eye who stands in your way and suck up really hard to anyone you think could possibly advance your career.

Trick is — which one is which?

The old farts who used to rule this town journalistically are all desperately trying to re-invent themselves at 55 or 63 or 47, while the 23-year-olds are running the ship. Even A. J. Jacobs, a 38-year-old best-selling author, only half-jokingly, describes himself as “doddering.”

So I make a point of being nice to some people half my age — these days, in my industry, they’re the ones with jobs and work to hand out!

I also give away my time far less often than I used to, I admit. I’ve watched some people I once helped skyrocket to positions of power and acclaim. And, yes, it pisses me off that they’ve never once thought to reciprocate or even drop a “Thanks!” email or note or call.

But that just tells me what sort of selfish ingrates people they are.

In my view, helping someone succeed (intelligently), doesn’t mean choosing a life of ramen and homelessness. It means we both get to celebrate success, maybe not at the same time.

It does mean having the self-confidence you, too, will succeed. So, for me, being helpful is also a powerful measure of confidence in what I can do, and have done. And will still do.

I’ll still extend a helping hand whenever and wherever it feels right.

Because — it feels right. Helping others, judiciously, is the right thing to do.

Do you help others professionally?

Which one of the three are you?