More Than Money
Issue #34

The Art of Giving

Table of Contents

“10 Tips for Artful Giving”

Have you ever gone to one of those post-holiday gift-swapping parties? Everyone brings the gifts they would rather not keep, and, with any luck, one person's trash is another's treasure. But how do you give the kind of gifts that people appreciate and cherish? More to the point, how do you avoid giving the kind of gifts that when people say, "You really shouldn't have," you really shouldn't have? Here are my top ten tips for artful giving:

1. Whose present is it, anyway?
If it's really a gift, it's for the recipient. Sure, every gift blesses the giver. You often hear people say that they get more out of giving than the recipient does. But in some cases, that's what the givers had in mind all along.

They pick presents they would like to receive, not gifts that they know will please the recipient. They buy in their own favorite color, choose CDs based on their own musical taste, give books that reflect their own world-views. They wish someone would give such a gift to them. If you say you're sharing something you like with others, that's fine. If you're doing it to impose your opinion, it's not a gift.

2. Timing isn't everything, but it's an important thing.
Give when the recipient can really use the gift. Why wait for a birthday or a holiday when someone has a need or a heart's desire with a different date attached? You can give a graduation present as a reward for a completed accomplishment, but might your expenditure be more appreciated if it comes on the way to graduation? A bookstore gift certificate, tuition assistance, a laptop computer- these are gifts as opposed to rewards.

In the larger picture, I have structured my estate so that I'm giving big cash gifts now, when they are most practical and helpful. It makes more sense to me to pay off mortgages and cars for loved ones now so that they are debt-free and secure while we're all relatively young and healthy. It's the same with my charitable donations. I'm giving now, while I can enjoy seeing the ways my charitable gifts are used. I don't think it will be as much fun to give when I'm dead.

3. Give with an open hand.
If there are strings attached, it's not a gift. If you give money and then second-guess what the recipient does with the money, it's not a gift. If you give a present and then get angry because the recipient exchanged it or re-gifted it, it's not a gift. When you give with an open hand, the gift leaves your hand. It is no longer yours. It is not yours to judge, to control, to manage.

I once gave a large cash gift to a family who, in turn, gave cash gifts to others. My initial reaction was unhappy surprise- I would never have given money directly to the individuals they gifted, and I would never have given to their chosen charities. I quickly remembered that I had given a gift. I did not enter into an agreement or a contract with conditions of satisfaction. I gave a gift, and that meant the money belonged to the recipients to do with as they pleased. That taught me to think ahead, to mentally play out scenarios that might unfold, and avoid the potential for giver's remorse. I try now to give only when I can genuinely and freely give.

4. Don't rub it in.
I gave a gift to a loved one, and it gave me great pleasure to see that it was being used. Whenever I experienced that pleasure, I mentioned the gift and how happy I was about it. One day, the recipient turned to me in exasperation. "Have I not thanked you sufficiently for this?" she said. "I have thanked you and thanked you, but you keep bringing it up as if you expect me to thank you every time."

Now I keep my mouth shut. If I see that they're wearing it, eating it, spending it, driving it, reading it, listening to it, or in any way using, enjoying, or benefiting from something I gave, I would rather choke than mention how happy I am about it. (See #1, "Whose present is it, anyway?")

5. Don't give the gift that keeps on costing.
A camera company used to refer to its product as "The gift that keeps on giving." I was a kid for whom it was "The gift that keeps on costing." The camera seemed like a great present until it came time to pay for film and developing. I couldn't afford either, so the gift was no gift at all.

My husband is always puzzled when people turn down his offer of free weeks at our vacation home. He forgets how much this "free" vacation costs-cross-country airfare, ground transportation, meals, lift tickets, other incidentals-all at top resort prices. Yes, you get wonderful accommodations at no cost whatsoever, but it costs plenty to get there and be there. Consider what your gift might cost the recipient. Is it expensive to fill, to insure, to clean, to operate? Does it require accessories or fees or special clothing? Are there tax implications? If I give a gift that requires batteries, I give a year's supply.

6. Give a gift, don't send a message.
There's a difference between giving a gift and delivering a sermon. When I was a nail-biting child, I could always count on some well-meaning relative to remember my birthday with a lovely manicure set as an "incentive." I was not inspired. I was, in fact, insulted, embarrassed, hurt, and cheated out of a genuine birthday present.

Any time your gift implies there is something "not right" about the recipient that needs fixing, it's not kind, even if you think it's in their long-term best interest.

If there are overweight loved ones in your life, you are not doing them a favor to surprise them with a treadmill, a health club membership, or an exercise video. And don't ask if they would like you to get them something like that, either, unless they have already expressed an interest in getting your help to change the condition. The mere suggestion screams your disapproval, and that's not a gift.

7. Remember, you bought the gift, not the giftee.
Some givers like to get a little something extra, in addition to the "There's a difference between giving pleasure of giving a gift. You may know of a household where the parents made the down payment on the newlyweds' house and assumed they bought the right to say what goes on in the house.

Sometimes the ego gratification from giving a major gift confuses a donor into thinking they bought a piece of a charitable institution. Just because they named the wing after you, it doesn't mean you own the wing. You don't get to boss people around at the nonprofit. Make sure you know the difference between an investment in personal public relations and a genuine gift to charity.

8. Don't wear the price tag on your forehead.
Some givers want recipients to know exactly how expensive a gift is. I once had a relative who was famous for leaving the price tag on a gift so everyone knew exactly "how much" she thought of them, and what they were "worth" compared to others in the family.

Some want the recipients to know how much of a sacrifice it was to give, or how inconvenient it was, or how much trouble they went to in order to produce a gift. This is a form of making the recipient pay for the gift. It's also the hallmark of someone who "knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

9. If you expect gratitude, it's an exchange, not a gift.
For decades, people have been complaining to Dear Abby that people don't write thank-you notes. "Is it proper to inquire as to whether a gift has been received?" they ask. If you want to know if things have been received, send them via trackable methods like FedEx or registered mail. Then you'll know. If you are offended when people don't write their thanks, don't send more presents. (However, your mother was right: It is both polite and gracious to thank the giver, and it gives the giver extra enjoyment-and that's part of being a good receiver.)

10. Give the gift of dignity.
Whatever you give, whenever you give, however you give, it costs you nothing to give recipients their dignity. The giver is not superior. The recipient is not lesser. We get brainwashed by platitudes like "It's better to give than to receive" and somehow twist the message into "we are better if we give than if we receive." I find that some of the most generous givers are uncomfortable, ungracious, or unwilling receivers. If you enjoy giving but not receiving, perhaps you believe that the receiver is the "minus" part of the equation. Give people the gift of dignity, respect, and a sense that we are all equally valuable people. That's one gift that actually becomes more precious when it's returned or exchanged.


© 1990-2005, More Than Money, All rights reserved