Each year as the holiday season approaches, life’s pace seems to quicken exponentially, hurtling us faster and faster through last-chance buying sprees to office parties, gift exchanges, and family meals to feed a cast of thousands. But even with so many things to do, people to see, and memories to make, many families still find the time to stop and focus on the fundamental sentiment of the season: giving. The holidays can be an opportune time for families to reflect on their current philanthropic mission and to set goals for the approaching new year and years to come. Here are some ways to simplify your holiday, maximize your time, and reflect upon your family’s philanthropy—although some of them might seem elementary, it helps to bear in mind that the simplest traditions make for the most rewarding holidays.
1. Spend time talking to one another
Although the holiday season entails its own kind of chaos, for many families it is the only time of year that everyone can sit down together without everyday distractions and look back at how the year panned out both personally and philanthropically. Make some time to sit down with members of your family and talk about the things that have happened in your lives over the past year. Consider if and how these events will impact your family’s philanthropy in the year to come.
Perhaps you’ve just welcomed your first child or grandchild into the world and that’s got you thinking about the future of your philanthropy. How can you encourage him or her to grow into your philanthropic mission? And how can your philanthropic mission grow with your child or grandchild? What traditions can you establish now that will make your family’s philanthropy as important to the next generation as it is to you?
Or maybe a younger sibling has spent the year traveling in the rainforests of Brazil, and is particularly excited to launch a new philanthropic initiative aimed at environmental conservation or providing medical care to indigenous peoples. Although this work falls outside the current scope of your family’s current philanthropy, her enthusiasm is infectious and perhaps the family would like to capitalize on the new-found energy and explore new grantmaking avenues. How can your sister’s new interest be incorporated into your philanthropic mission? What steps can your family take over the next year to advance these new goals?
2. Send a holiday greeting and write a letter
Even if geographic limitations or time constraints prevent you from gathering as a family, start a dialogue that can last you throughout the year. Along with holiday wishes and gifts, send members of your family a letter or email telling them what profoundly impacted your life this year. How did events change your perspective or reinforce beliefs that you already held? How did they or could they affect your philanthropy? What are your hopes for the upcoming year: for yourself, your family, and your philanthropy?
These notes can be a fine jumping-off point for family meetings later in the year when things are less hectic and travel becomes more plausible. They can allow family members to appreciate and digest changes in the lives of individuals’ family members and consider how these changes might alter the family dynamics.
3. Undertake a family giving project
Another way to spend time together this holiday season that won’t brake the bank or add a notch to your belt is to embark on a charitable project as a family. Although many parents may be concerned that the holidays are becoming too commercial and too acquisition focused, they may still find it difficult to scale back holiday gift-giving for fear that children—even adult ones—will feel deprived or unloved. Experts agree, however, that it is the holiday traditions that profoundly influence how children, and later adults, feel about the holidays. It’s not the trendy toy-of-the-moment that children remember, it’s the events and activities: baking, decorating, visiting, and laughing.
If your family doesn’t yet have an annual philanthropic tradition—start one this year: bundle up the kids, and serve turkey and stuffing at a soup kitchen; bake kugel or sugar cookies for the elderly; or adopt a local child and provide holiday gifts and warm winter apparel. Not only is it a wonderful opportunity to make a difference in the life of a needy individual or family, but it’s a great time to get kids hooked on the warm fuzzy feeling of giving.
In a recent president’s message, NCFP President Ginny Esposito shares how the giving tradition she started—buying gifts for a child in need— to celebrate the birth of her nephew, Michael, has become an integral part of her yearly holiday preparation. Not only is it a way to help a needy child celebrate the holidays, but it also allows Ginny and Michael to spend time together and celebrate one another.
If your schedule is too hectic or the weather gets too fierce to allow for these kinds of projects, there are other ways to use the season to educate your children on the value of giving. Consider instituting a holiday tradition like Barnaby J. Feder’s: he, his wife and their three children settle in front of the fire one evening each year and devote a few hours to family giving. Each child is given $100 to donate to a charity of his or her choice, but only after they take a seat in front of the fire to sift through and evaluate the copious solicitations that begin appearing in the mailbox in late fall. Before their parents will write a check for the donation, each child must write a letter to their chosen charity or charities explaining why the felt the recipient worthy of the gift. Although the children procrastinate in writing their letters, the elder Feders hold firm, and it seems to be paying off. Their younger son Alfie says of the letter writing: “I don’t like the letters. . .But it’s right to do them. It’s important that they know they have faithful supporters and who they are.” To read more about Mr. Feder’s holiday giving tradition, see The Family That Pays Together.
4. Forget Amazon, go online and shop for a worthy cause
The holidays are the busiest time of year for most of us. Maybe you thought ahead and earmarked some money each week or each month for charity, but here it is, the end of the year, and it’s all still in the jar. Time is running out to do something good, and to let Uncle Sam know about it, but you’re overwhelmed and time is the one thing you haven’t got. There are loads of online resources available to help you locate charities doing good work in your neighborhood and around the world. For tips on finding and choosing a legitimate charity visit Charity Navigator or the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance. In addition, many well-known established charities have secure portals through which you can donate online, in case you forgot to send your check this year.
If you prefer some human interaction, contact your local community foundation for information on worthy causes in your area, or visit the local library for a listing of nonprofits, which can help you in your search. Houses of worship, local schools and community centers can also be good sources of information about the philanthropic work being done in your neighborhood.
5. Make a philanthropic New Year’s resolution
This year instead of simply resolving to get more exercise, stop biting your nails, or lose that last 10 pounds make a commitment to give of your time. Many people feel charitable during the holiday season, but people are in need year-round. Why not commit to a New Year’s resolution you know will make a difference and make you feel good? Volunteer to drive for Meals-on-Wheels once a month, tutor a child, or plan to take the kids out and pick up litter at the local zoo or park when the weather warms up. Or kill two birds with one stone: train for a 5K (or a marathon for the more ambitious) charity race and get your friends, family, and co-workers to sponsor you. You’ll be more motivated to accomplish your goals when you combine internal and external incentives.