Why I Focus on Gifts That Give Back

In 2009, I founded the Global Giving Circle and for a year I organized events to support underserved communities and fund creative and innovative solutions to alleviate poverty. The money we raised came from ticket sales to the events. What I discovered was that when you work in community with others, small contributions can add up and have great impact.

Sometime in early September of 2009 when I was preparing for our year-end event, I came across two statistics that shocked me. In 2009 the National Retailers Federation reported that $437,000,000,000 – yes $437 billion dollars – is spent on gifts for the holidays (this holiday season is forecast at $586.1 billion) and a survey by eBay from 2008 reported that, “of U.S. adults who receive gifts during the holidays, more than four in five (83%) receive unwanted items and almost half (46%) of those adults resell or re-gift, that is, give the unwanted gift to someone else as a gift.”

That means that $363 billion dollars was wasted on unwanted gifts in 2008! I couldn’t believe it! I started scheming up ways I could help consumers make better, less wasteful choices. I started thinking about my own family and how we had decided not to give each other gifts at the holidays anymore. There had to be others who also choose other ways to express love and appreciation in lieu of gifts. Cradle To Cradle flashed in my mind as did the website http://www.storyofstuff.com. Why not copy the Heifer International model where a gift given can “buy” a cow, sheep, a flocks of geese, that were given to people in the developing world which would enable them to feed their family (though the breeding and sale of livestock). I began to research nonprofits that were trying to make a significant impact on some of the most difficult issues. Why not encourage people to make a donation to honor those we care about and choose nonprofits focused on the causes they feel the most connected to?

The next questions was how to get New Yorkers to attend an event in December, the busiest month of the year, and compete with companies’ year end parties. Enter the Upright Citizens Brigade and ChrismaHanuKwanzakah: A Holiday Anxiety Spectatular was born.

The evening opened with an acrobat who warmed up the audience and then the Upright Citizens Brigade took the stage and performed improv skits inspired by audience members who were invited to share memories of the most awkward family holiday moments, worst gifts ever received, and other experiences that make the holidays, for some, cringe-worthy. At intermission and after the improv skits, the audience was invited to make purchases from the gift emporium I put together.

I selected 12 organizations, based on the issue their nonprofit or for-profit social enterprise, was addressing.

The event was a huge success and in 2010 we were invited to participate in FEED’s holiday emporium held at Donna Karan’s Urban Zen. In 2011 I joined forces with Diana Ayton-Shenker, the founder of Fast Forward Fund, and we gave a presentation on Social Impact Giving that was held at Green Spaces. We organized the presentation by gift categories and shared the story of each organization behind the gift we featured.

Shana Dressler is the founder of the Social Innovators Collective, an international network of emerging founders and professionals who work in the social enterprise and nonprofit sectors. An expert on ethically sourced cacao, she was recently appointed as a judge for the International Chocolate Awards as well as a judge for the Webby Awards “Start-ups for Social Good” category. You can follow her @sic_org and @shanadressler.