alternative gift

Alternative Gift Ideas

Are you looking for alternative gift ideas this year? Maybe you’re concerned about the supply chain problems much written about recently; or you’ve become impatient with the constant noise selling your child yet another toy or piece of technology. Maybe you’ve become overwhelmed and feel your child is, too; maybe you want to put an end to the excesses and want to restructure your family’s gift giving. You may want to impose new, more modest limits on holiday spending, and you may want to give your children – and have them give others – alternative gifts that benefit others and remind them of the true spirit of love and charity that should imbue all of the winter holidays.

Alternative Gift Giving and Alternative Gift Markets

There are numerous local, national and international organizations where you can designate charitable gifts in the name of your family and friends; usually then a card is sent or given to you for your recipient telling them the cause you’ve donated to, and maybe a bit about a specific project they’re helping. Sometimes you can purchase gift cards where your recipient gets to use to choose their own cause to donate to.

You can shop for alternative gift opportunities at home online by visiting a charity or nonprofit’s website directly. You can also shop in person or online through what’s known as an alternative gift market. These can be held by churches, synagogues, temples, community organizations, schools or any group. Markets can have local, national or international partner organizations, and sometimes all three. Some in-person markets offer shoppers the opportunity to meet representatives of or recipients of the partner charities and other organizations (or both in-person and online), but last year and this year caution seems to be prevailing with many markets only online.

Getting Started and Making the Donation Choices

The first step is talking about why you are choosing to do alternative gift giving. This provides a great opportunity for your family to sit down together and discuss your values – what’s really important to each of you individually, what’s really meaningful to you as a family. Without judgment, let everyone weight in on what they think about “stuff,” about the consumerism of today’s world and about commercialization of holidays. What does it mean to give a gift and to receive a gift? Are gifts about things, about money or about love? What it would mean to honor a family member or friend with an alternative gift like a donation to a favorite cause, and what it would mean to that cause?

Sit with your child and talk about making choices with what may be their first philanthropy. How much do they want to, and can they afford to, spend for each person they want to donate in the name of? Discuss and research organizations your child wants to support and/or believes that person would, then let them make the match. Alternative gift giving can be tied to a child’s own hobbies or interests or perhaps to a cause like research on a disease that claimed a loved one. Organizations can always use donations of cash, but some may also have specific item wish lists; you might purchase an item, wrap it and give it to the child, and, together, bring it to the beneficiary. (Or many organizations have Amazon wish lists.)

Discuss what a donation will mean to the recipient organization as a whole, and on the level of individual beneficiaries, be it a family struggling to rise from poverty, a child who needs an education, or a forest decimated by wildfire. Helping others in need in this personal way can be a powerful – and empowering – lesson in compassion for your child and encourage them to think beyond themselves to their communities, their country and their world.

Ideas for Organizations and Projects Kids Can Donate To

All nonprofit organizations and charities here and globally have been hit hard during COVID-19 by reduced income and/or vastly increased demand for their support. Here are just a few examples where your child and family can make a difference through alternative gift giving:

Alternative Gifts International (AGI) lets you or your child donate money earmarked for specific projects in categories like hunger relief, shelter, medical assistance, water, education, development, peace and justice, child survival, livestock, the environment and emergency disaster relief. A gift of just $5 can buy seeds to empower women farmers in Sudan. Just $15 provides shelter supplies or $55 provides groceries for a family for one week through AGI’s Food and Shelter for Americans efforts. A donation of $83 can help restore indigenous Pueblo lands destroyed by wildfire in New Mexico. A gift of just $11 can provide a child in the DR Congo a set of leg braces. Visit their site.

Another well-respected organization that allows kids to make a one-to-one connection in their giving is Heifer International, which helps hungry people feed themselves, earn income and care for the environment. Wouldn’t your child or family love to give a goat or a share in a goat, a whole flock of ducks, honeybees, or a pig? Read them the examples of the benefits set in motion with their gift, like warm clothing, livelihoods made selling wool and milk for hungry families when you gift a sheep or share in a sheep. Check out their online catalog.

Gift-givers can plant trees through American Forests (a nonprofit conservation organization founded in 1875): you will be helping to stabilize slopes along streams, reduce soil erosion and sedimentation and regenerate wildlife habitat. Every dollar contributed plants one tree in a wildland restoration project in a priority threatened ecosystem. Visit their site.

Your family’s holiday shopping can help send lifesaving supplies to protect kids facing COVID-19, natural disasters and humanitarian crises around the world with UNICEF. At their online shop you can search by cause and more, and set your price point – great for kids doing the shopping. Your child can see that every little bit makes a huge difference – e.g., $25 donation will buy mosquito nets to protect 10 families from malaria, a $10 donation will buy warm blankets for five babies, $20 buys soap to protect a family’s health and hygiene or $29 buys a solar study lamp.

And don’t forget causes like these:

  • Your local homeless shelter.
  • Your local humane society, animal rescue league or wildlife rescue organization.
  • Friends of your local library.
  • Food banks.
  • Disaster relief.
  • The environment.
  • Mental health.
  • The arts.
  • Immigrant and refugee aid.
  • Support for LGBTQA children and youth.
  • Groups helping people with disabilities.
  • Racial justice.

If an organization through which your child chooses to gift someone does not offer a special card or certificate acknowledging the contribution (or even if they do!), have your child design one themselves, by hand or on their tablet or computer. You might be able to bring your child to the organization, if local, to view their activities and see the need and the assistance their dollars can bring, and if not (as likely now during the pandemic), go to the organization’s website together and explore your child’s impact there.

Gifts of Time

Finally, remember that alternative gifts don’t always have to involve money. The gift of time is precious, and the gift to your child will be a lasting memory. You can gift experiences, like attending an arts performance or cooking a special meal together. Wouldn’t your sister and brother-in-law love a gift of babysitting so they could go on a date night? (And your kids could be part of the gift, too, providing entertainment for their younger cousin kiddos.) Or wouldn’t the grandparents be pleased to see that your child was donating a certain number of hours of volunteer time to a local charity in their honor? (Check with your city or county’s volunteer office for opportunities appropriate to your child’s age and maturity.)

Sitting down as a family to plan for the coming holiday’s alternative gift giving year after year, and seeing loved ones’ faces when they open the cards surprising them with your donations, may soon not only mean more but even generate more delight and excitement than heading to a store or hopping online for traditional holiday shopping, and the glee of ripping open packages of another item to play with (adults to) and then forget. And the shared tradition of alternative gift giving may well be something your children will pass down to their own kids someday.

Some 2021 Alternative Gift Markets in Our Area

  • Unitarian Universalist Church of Reston (UUCR), Reston, Va. Alternative Gift Market will be online this year November 26-December 5. Shoppers receive a digital card they can send to the recipient as well as information about the cause they have selected. With more than 30 partners, “My 2021 Shopping List for the World” includes everything from help for abused women in Loudoun County, food security for children, dementia care and STEAM activity supplies to global giving like water wells for South Sudan, emergency relocation for Afghan women, eco-stoves in Guatemala and planting trees in Haiti. Gifts range from $10-$118. Every dollar that is donated goes directly to the charities; UU Reston covers the cost of credit card fees and other market expenses.
  • Westminster Presbyterian Church, Alexandria, Va. The partner organizations for this year’s Alternative Giving Bazaar, online only, range from addressing poverty, hunger and homelessness locally to an orphanage and academy in Kenya and health care in Haiti.
  • Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, Washington, D.C. Online Alternative Gift Market provides cards that the donors can then gift to someone. You have a choice of selecting a secular or religious card for your recipient.
  • Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, Md. Online Alternative Gifts 2021 runs November 15-December 31. Gifts range from help for local people with limited financial resources living with HIV/AIDS, a community garden in Anacostia and a vocal ensemble for LGBTQ+ & allied youth to village health teams in Eastern Uganda, educating girls in Ethiopia and young adult leadership support for peace in Israel/Palestine.
  • Alternative Gifts of Greater Washington, Takoma Park, Md., will hold its 23rd Annual Alternative Gift Fair on December 4th, 2021, in Takoma Park with their online shopping season November 25- December 31, 2021. Funds raised go to causes like feeding people in need in the Takoma Park area; improving the environment; and supporting orphans, children and youth.
  • Christian Community Presbyterian Church, Bowie, Md. Alternative Christmas Market online November 7-30, 2021. Shoppers select gifts from trusted organizations such as Heifer International, Habitat for Humanity and the Medical Benevolence Foundation.

More Resources for Alternative Giving at the Holidays and Throughout the Year

  • Alternative Gifts International
  • Growing from a former organization in Takoma Park, Md., New Dream’s Simplify the Holidays is a great resource with a “More Fun Less Stuff” alternative gift catalog with hundreds of fun, low-cost, non-material gift ideas; “Family Celebrations: A More Fun, Less Stuff Guide to Life’s Joyful Events;” various holiday-specific articles; a printable coupon book perfect for even little kids to customize giving for Mom, Dad or Sis; an alternative gift registry and an action kit to create your own alternative gift fair in your community.
  • “Simplifying the holidays doesn’t mean you have to stop giving (or receiving) gifts. It’s about seeking meaningful, wildlife-friendly alternatives that don’t harm the planet. And often these alternatives are more memorable, unique and economical than mass-produced items found in big box stores.” The D.C. nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity has a gift guide with suggestions for recipient interests from wildlife lover to food lover. Also, ideas for experiential gifts, DIY/handmade gifts, food gifts, donation and support gifts and quality time/skill sharing gifts.
  • Montgomery County Dept. of Environmental Protection reminds us that “the amount of household waste in the U.S. increases an average of 25% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day (EPA). Wrapping paper, decorations, packaging, and leftover food (and sometimes even the gifts we buy), often don’t last long and end up in the waste stream.” They’re partnering on the campaign Gift Outside the Box and issuing a Gift Greener Challenge with suggestions in these categories: Buy Local, Gift Experiences, Gift Greener, Give Back, and Reduce, Reuse & Recycle.
  • The Greater Washington Catalogue for Philanthropy is a trusted resource for screening charities and other nonprofits you’re considering donating to.
  • Fair Play was formerly Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC).
  • JustGive “Imagine if the holidays were no longer about giving material gifts but about coming together to change the world.” With JustGive’s Charity Gift Cards, you purchase and give someone the card (which you can personalize with your child’s or family photo, and the recipient directs that donation to a charity of their choice from among a million.
  • Check out Washington, D.C. writer Susan Crites Price book, “Generous Genes: Raising Caring Kids in a Digital Age.”


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