The Giving Season

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The other day, I was picking up a wedding cake at the ever-popular Two Little Red Hens Bakery on the Upper East Side.  As I waited in line (there is ALWAYS a line), I overheard a conversation between two twenty-something women about the holidays.  One said to the other, “I wish my family would stop exchanging Christmas presents, but I can be the one to make that suggestion.”  Gentle readers, you know, I always talk to strangers.  As I left, I suggested, “Maybe you could make donations to charities instead of buying regular presents.  That might change the dynamic of things.” 

I have long loved this idea for gift giving, be it for birthdays, holidays, or whatever.  It seems to be especially on point for older folks who really do have everything they need.  As celebrities and bloggers of all varieties come out with their holiday gift giving guides (many containing outrageously expensive novelty items), I decided that I’d publish a little list of my own—some charities you might consider “gifting” for the winter holidays.

  1. The Heifer Project.  I have adored this charity forever.  Based in Little Rock, Arkansas, it was originally started by members of the Church of the Brethren.  Although the charity has been around since 1944, it gained greater notoriety during the Clinton Administration given the Arkansas connection.  Now working worldwide, the Heifer project is unique in several important ways.  First, I love the embodiment of the “reap and sow” values by Heifer.  For every family that is helped with a donation of crops or livestock, they agree to make a similar gifting to a needy family once they are in a stronger financial position.  Second, they have a brilliant marketing strategy….rather than asking people for a simple donation of money, they invite folks to purchase particular agriculture items for a family in need—ranging from a bee hive (for gathering honey) to a hutch of rabbits to a share of a cow.  The bundles vary by donation amount.  This visceral connection make between the giver and the gift is very powerful.

  2. Share our Strength/No Kid Left Behind.  Years ago, I picked up the book Revolution of the Heart from a discount catalog. Working in public service and contemplating a run for office in my native Oklahoma, I was gripped by the story of Bill (Billy) Shore, a longtime Congressional aide and staffer for Gary Hart’s presidential campaign.  Readers of a certain age will remember Hart’s campaign imploding when he was photographed in the Caribbean on a boat aptly named “Monkey Business.”  The lady who accompanied him was, how shall we say, not his wife.  Shore writes about the rapid downward spiral of the campaign, as well as his personal journey figuring out “what was next.”  He eventually started the anti-hunger nonprofit Share our Strength.  Besides having a heart of gold, Shore is a marketing genius.  To use the language of the day, he creates for-profit revenue generating mechanisms to fund his charity work.   He has harnessed the fame and goodwill of countless celebrity chefs, building the “Taste of a Nation” events around the country.  He currently works with business greats like Danny Meyer of, among other things, Shake Shack fame to raise money to feed American kids, all day, every day.  Just last night, while ordering Indian Food through my seamless app, I noticed that as one checks out, she may make a small donation to Billy’s great vision.

  3. Hudson Link and Puppies behind Bars.   Years ago, I was connected with a prison education program called Hudson Link at Sing Sing prison.  Hudson Link, along with other similar educational programs, embraces the radical notion that prisons are not just about retribution, but about rehabilitation.  If those who are convicted do not have real, authentic opportunities to change their lives while serving a sentence, they will most probably return to prison after an initial release.   Hudson Link makes available the gift to a select group of men the capacity to earn a college degree while serving their term.  The Puppies behind Bars effort is located, near Sing Sing, at the Bedford Hills Women’s Prison.  The mission here is equally simple and beautiful.  Selected women  are offered the chance to raise puppies that are being groomed for intensive service programs, for the first year of their life.  The participants teach the pups basic obedience commands and socialize them, in advance of their attending the rigorous schools to become seeing-eye and service dogs.   This is a win-win-win proposition! Any dog owner knows that these animals can be great sources of comfort and healing.   For many of these women, this is the first time they’ve experienced unconditional love.  Not only are they gaining potentially marketable skills in animal training and grooming, they are part of a virtuous process of being involved in an effort—greater than themselves—to help others.  Their connection to helping disabled Veterans with animal companions (a natural partnership given the close proximity to West Point) is especially heart-warming. 

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