Alternative giving can open hearts, create lasting memories, and help build a better world

When times are tough, it's a good idea to look for the silver lining. Despite continued dark economic news and the growing concerns for our planet’s safety, I think I see one. It lies in the choices we make and the differences we can make this year as one of our biggest gift-giving seasons comes knocking.

Think of the billions of pounds of paper and plastic, shipped across the world to go into landfills. The millions of unwanted presents gathering dust. The disappointment of receiving a gift that has no value or meaning. It's time to stop the madness and return to the true meaning of Christmas, if that's your tradition, or of a holiday you embrace.
I am a great proponent of giving and of receiving. I've written books on how giving and receiving enriches us all.  

It is an important way to express love, kindness and appreciation. But hasn't everyone received at least one gift that was stuffed in a closet somewhere before being recycled or maybe even thrown away. And, unless you are the exception, you've given gifts that, frankly, are what my teenager would call "lame".
Choosing the perfect gift isn't easy, and there's no shame in getting it wrong. But it is time to consider the impact your choices, especially the ones made in haste, have on the environment and on lives around you.

This season, evaluate your attitudes around gift giving.   In the process, consider alternative giving. I’d like to suggest three alternatives, which should reduce your stress and enrich the whole gift giving experience.   Call it my gift to you.

Here are my suggestions:
One, make a gift to a nonprofit in your loved one's name. Your recipient receives a card that explains your gift and the impact it will have for others in the world.
Two, give the gift of service, where no money is actually exchanged, just time and effort.
And three, a variation of two, where you find a creative way to acknowledge those you love.
Let me address each one separately.
First, most nonprofits will be delighted to receive a gift from you in someone's name.   Major national environmental groups, such as the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Ecojustice or the David Suzuki Foundation, will send a card in your name to the person you want to honour.   Or you can get a card from them and sign your own message.

The environmental benefits are obvious: less paper, less plastic, and less transportation.
International development agencies from UNICEF to Oxfam can offer gifts of soccer balls for children, or a goat for a family in Africa. Twenty dollars for malaria nets may mean more to your recipient than a monogrammed keychain.

Food banks and women shelters need food, clothing and cash to support their valuable work.   Look for causes that you feel passionate about, but, more importantly, consider the causes that your gift recipient will feel passionate about.
The second type of giving is the gift of service. It can range from my giving a pint of blood in your name, to a massage, to volunteer snow shovelling.   A coupon book full of afternoons off or breakfasts in bed is a perfect package for a busy mother or father.
The third type, perhaps a little less tangible than a nonprofit donation or a leaf raking coupon, requires creativity and time, which are essential to this gift. It is the gift of thanks.

A friend still remembers the year her family exchanged letters for Christmas. On Christmas day she woke to find three letters, one from each member of her family, hanging on the tree with her name on it. She still treasures the letters and, not surprisingly, remembers very few of the other gifts given to her over the years.  

Gestures of love and kindness packaged in a poem or a bottle of wine with the promise of a gourmet dinner can leave much more lasting impressions than the newest computer game or glow in the dark golf balls.
Before the season is upon us, sit down and talk about this issue with your family. You may be surprised and delighted to see that a discussion of this topic will bring relief and happiness. That could be a great gift for them now and years into the future.                                                                                                                                                        

Harvey McKinnon is co-author of the recently published, The Power of Giving: How Giving Back Enriches Us All (Penguin), which is, of course, a great alternative gift.  He has written four books, produced award-winning documentaries that have aired worldwide, and his articles have been published in a number of newspapers.