When a gift isn’t really a gift after all

"Buying each other stuff is part of what makes us a faithful community.
Sometimes I wonder what the act of dictating our own gifts does to our
communities and ourselves. . . When we pick out gifts for ourselves, we feel
like we got them for ourselves. The giver becomes a phantom." Cramer Avenue Column in Mennonite World Review

The gift registry is so much a part of our personal giving these days, we don’t pay it much mind. And that’s a problem, or so suggests columnist Sarah Kehrberg in a piece titled “Picking out gifts for ourselves.” She admits to having created her own want list when she got married, but then muses about the unforeseen consequences of “to-bes” telling friends and family exactly how to bless them.

I chuckled at Sarah’s description of “young lovers zipping around the store with
the little beep-beep gizmos like children in a candy shop.” Been there, seen
that, and taken advantage of the convenience of no-thought gift-giving.

But my smile slipped as I considered the parallels between Sarah’s
donor-directing gift-getters and the outcome-controlling gift-givers I’ve
encountered in my work with faith-based organizations. Almost every fundraiser can tell a story of gifts that came wrapped in conditions.
And even as they bemoan the demise of charitable intent, leaders in cash-starved ministries put up with donors’ selfish demands for fear of jeopardizing future support.

It’s relatively harmless when brides-to-be create gift registries. But when
donors approach gift giving with the same all-about-me attitude, Christian
philanthropy has a problem.

So when is a “gift” not truly a gift? Is it . .

  • when the gift comes so tightly bound by “strings” that it does little more for the organization than boost this year’s giving total?
  • when a pledge to give is followed by a not so veiled threat of retraction if the organization fails to toe the donor’s party-line?
  • when a donor passes along an asset (e.g. real estate) without disclosing potential problems?
  • when gift-giving is used to advance a pet cause that wasn’t approved through official decision-making processes?

There’s no end to the ways people find to turn giving to their own advantage.
But just because beneficiaries are willing to look past donor motives,
self-centered giving is no less troublesome.

It’s time to consider the unforeseen consequences of tolerating (or worse,
encouraging) me-focused giving. It’s time to ask when a gift isn’t really a gift
at all. Generous matters too much to let the issue slide.

What's your take on this topic?

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