Putting the Giving in Thanksgiving

This might hurt my mother’s feelings, but I can live without the creamed onions and the sweet potatoes covered with melted marshmallows.  Despite their stubborn presence at our annual gathering, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s all about the things that I love: family, food, appreciation and giving.

Of course, it’s also a holiday that some people dread.  Maybe it’s because of a long-stewing family feud, different parenting styles or some other dysfunction (insert your family’s recurring hot buttons here).  Whether you truly enjoy the gathering, or you have to put on a happy face just to get through it, here are some ways to keep the conversation from shifting into the dangerous death-spiral that sends everyone home wondering why they showed up.  These are some things you can ask everyone around the table to share.  What was your:

  • Funniest moment of the year
  • Happiest experience this year
  • Proudest moment of the year
  • Cause or issue you care deeply about and why

These ideas are usually pretty safe because they avoid politics and some other categories that set people off.  They are also topics that don’t require lots of time, so even larger gatherings can make it all the way around the table before losing interest.  One of the other – perhaps less obvious – benefits of sharing a question around the table is that it gives everyone a chance to speak.  Going around the table requires everyone else to listen, and it provides an opportunity to learn something new about everyone gathered.

Thanksgiving is also a natural time to talk about ways to give back.  You might be introducing the idea or looking for ways to do more.  Either way, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to discuss ideas for the upcoming year.  Here are some ways to encourage family members to explore and learn what they care about. These can be introduced at or near Thanksgiving and can continue through the end of the year, as needed:

  • Discuss options and identify a local organization where you can volunteer
  • Introduce and discuss the idea of a family service trip where you can work together as a family – consider also including time for other things you like to do on vacation to make sure everyone has fun
  • Identify an amount you want to give away as a family and determine how to decide which charity will get the gift
  •  Allow each person to identify a charity they want to give money to, encouraging them to add to it from their own account or by raising money on their own
  • Create a budget and have each family member research and promote their favorite organization. Vote on the winner.
  • Create a Giving Plan for the year, identifying a budget, activities and goals

Some of these ideas may require support and oversight, depending on how old or experienced family members are with their giving.  If you don’t currently discuss your giving and what you care about, Thanksgiving is a great time to start that discussion.

Start small and build from there.  Help your kids find things they care about and identify ways they can help.  In the process, you will have a chance to learn from each other while also impacting issues that are important to family members.

And that’s a side dish for Thanksgiving that is much more fulfilling than creamed onions could ever be!

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Forbes Legacy Advisors