Gifts That Keep Giving, December 2010

How to give gifts this season that truly make a difference

A discussion with Joan Duncan Oliver

The holidays are coming. Time to draw up your gift list. Forget cashmere lap robes, chronometer watches, that scented candle your assistant will only re-gift to her grandmother. Expensive, unimaginative presents are so last year. The Buddhist spirit of giving—dana—is about generosity, not booty. We need to think outside the Tiffany box.

Conscious consuming today means not just buying less but being mindful of your footprint on the earth. “Green” etiquette says the best present is one that doesn’t pollute, doesn’t exploit resources, causes no harm, helps someone in need—and may even burnish your karma. When you plunk down your credit card, make it truly count.

“The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation,” writes Lewis Hyde in The Gift. “Indian giver,” he explains, originally meant someone who “understood a cardinal property of the gift: whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept. Or, if it is kept, something of similar value should move on in its stead, the way a billiard ball may stop when it sends another scurrying across the felt.”

Gift-giving, then, is a basic lesson in detachment as well as an exercise in metta—lovingkindness. Irrespective of the gift, the act of giving expresses good will.

Increasingly, conscious giving also involves karuna—compassion—in the form of a cash gift to a worthy cause: not the check just written to offset a hefty year-end bonus but a donation made in the name of a friend, family member, or client. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, weddings—any occasion that warrants a gift is an opportunity for compassionate giving. Conscious brides—some of them, no doubt, on marriage two, three, or four—are registering online for donations to a favorite cause, in lieu of silver gravy boats, china services, and Waring blenders. Even children are asking birthday party guests to make donations instead of bearing gifts. (It’s debatable whether the kids or the parents are sparking this trend, but the result is to be applauded. It’s never too soon to learn generosity.)

Courtesy of One H.E.A.R.TDonations are starting to replace the goody bags given out as party favors. For their October 2007 wedding, Mike Dupee and Carmen Negrón-Colón decided to forego the predictable photo-in-a-frame and give each of their 300 guests a “gift of safe birth”—a donation to One Heart World-Wide, an organization that is helping reverse Tibet’s infant and maternal mortality rate, in part by distributing a kit containing a sterile glove, disposable towels, baby blankets, medication, and other birthing essentials. Like many people opting for gifts of service, Dupee—an investment banker turned vice president for corporate social responsibility at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Vermont—says he’s “fed up with consumer culture and having more things to clutter up our lives.” A student of Shinzen Young, Dupee thinks of the gift as an extension of his practice and an expression of interconnectedness. “A wedding is about two people coming together before friends and family to create a new family, and to connect that to people in Tibet who have so much less seems remarkably appropriate.”

Founded by Arlene Samen, an American nurse-practitioner and longtime practitioner in the Tibetan Buddhist and Zen traditions, One Heart World-Wide is one of the carefully selected “Gifts of Compassion” offered by ABC Home in New York City through its ABC Home & Planet Foundation. An upscale emporium known as much for its social commitment as for its luxe goods, ABC Home created MISSIONMarket to give its customers a chance, with the click of a mouse, to support a visionary organization that promotes healing of self, family, community, animals, or the planet—and fosters a sense of home. This year, you can pick from such causes as an after-school program run by the Greyston Foundation, a community development organization in Yonkers, New York, founded 28 years ago by Roshi Bernie Glassman; the homey apartments set up by the Patrick Chege Memorial Orphanage in Kenya for children orphaned by AIDS; a cow for a resource-poor organic cotton farmer in Andhra Pradesh, India—or one of more than 20 other initiatives around the world. The person you are honoring with a Gift of Compassion receives a handmade silk bag that contains a card describing the program that will benefit from your donation. ABC Home is also offering “Charms for Change,” brushed-silver-and-green-onyx charms in the shape of Africa designed by artisan jeweler Jane Diaz for the Help Darfur Now (, which raises funds for victims of genocide in the Sudan. Founded by three high school students, the non-profit now has chapters in 250 schools across America.

Courtesy of One HeartNow in its seventh year, MISSIONMarket marries beauty and good works, according to Amy Chender, ABC Home’s vice president of environmental and social responsibility, and a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner in the Shambhala tradition. “People often don’t know the cutting-edge organizations out in the field,” Chender points out. “MISSIONMarket provides guidance about giving compassionately.”

Paulette Cole, ABC Home’s CEO and creative director, was inspired to create these giving opportunities in part by the work of the Seva Foundation. Co-founded in the late 1970s by Ram Dass to treat blindness in the Himalayas, Seva (a Sanskrit term referring to selfless service) now supports programs in poor communities around the globe. Its online catalog describes a range of Gifts of Service, under the headings of “Hearts of Compassion,” “Kindness for Children,” and “Opportunities for Women.”

Courtesy of One H.E.A.R.TSeva is just one of a number of nonprofits with an online gift catalog. From the Heifer Project—an organization fighting hunger and poverty worldwide by supplying livestock and training to families in need—you can “buy” a flock of chicks, say, or a trio of rabbits, or a cow or a llama. Instead of taking delivery on the livestock, your friend receives a gift card describing how the donation will be used. At Oxfam America, donor dollars go toward relieving poverty and injustice in some 26 countries. Their program, Oxfam American Unwrapped, offers gifts symbolic of their reach, such as a can of worms, a school desk and chair, an emergency toilet, and solar panels for a home.

The Internet has made gift donations a breeze. In addition to nonprofits that fund their own projects, there are portals like and that channel donations to hundreds of organizations and will match donors with causes that speak to their values. Both offer a gift registry and gift certificates.

If gift-giving is a form of exchange, a gift of compassion is “the gift that gives three times,” as Amy Chender puts it. You, the donor, get the satisfaction of supporting your favorite cause, plus a tax deduction and credit for thinking of your friend. The end user—the organization you’re supporting—receives funds for its programming. The “recipient”—the person you’re honoring with your donation—gets a gift card (and in ABC’s case, a silk bag) and the good feeling that for someone, somewhere, life is about to get a little better.

Though the overriding appeal of gift donations is humanitarian, they’re also practical. “When we think about gift-giving it seems very complicated—picking out a present and buying it,” says Mike Dupee. “This is very simple.” For corporate gifts, it’s ideal. As an investment banker, Dupee received countless gifts from vendors—calendars, pens, and the like. “But one vendor sent me a paper saying he’d made a $25 donation to the Heart Association in my name. Fifteen years later, I still remember that.”

Gift-giving forges a bond between giver and receiver. ABC designed Gifts of Compassion with that personal connection in mind. “The disparity of wealth in the world is so unjust,” says Cole. “We hope for people to have the feeling they can share their good fortune. There is gratitude in creating balance between the privileged and the underprivileged.”

A survey by Kintera, a company that supplies software to nonprofits, found that more than three-quarters of the respondents would prefer receiving a charitable donation in their name to a traditional holiday gift. Still, giving on another’s behalf can be tricky. To make sure your gift will be met with joy, etiquette experts recommend picking a cause that reflects the recipient’s interests, not yours. If Uncle Fred is a logger, he may not appreciate efforts to protect caribou habitat. On the other hand, if he’s a union organizer, he may be thrilled to bits to think he’s helping staff a workers’ rights center.

What does all this mean to a Buddhist? How does gift-giving provide an opportunity for practice? For one thing, a gift donation has low environmental impact and high social value. For another, compassionate giving is a way of acknowledging our responsibility for one another and the earth. “Ask yourself, 'What is my intention with this gift?'” suggests psychotherapist Sandra Weinberg, CSW, a co-founder of New York Insight Meditation Center. “The Buddha spoke of skillful means. Is your gift-giving selfish, motivated by ego-building or a tax deduction or your own interests, or is it selfless—thinking of the other person?”

True dana is about giving with no expectation of return. One who receives a gift of compassion is promised nothing more than the emotional boost of knowing good has been done. But as we groan under the weight of our possessions, that in itself can be a priceless gift. Altruism is a proven tonic.

Years ago, whenever anyone asked my father what he wanted for his birthday or Christmas, he invariably replied, “Peace and quiet.” In our supercharged, overconsuming lives, that may be the most compassionate gift of all.


Contributing editor Joan Duncan Oliver is the author, most recently, of Coffee with the Buddha, and the editor of Commit to Sit, a Tricycle anthology.

Images: The gift of a simple birth kit, distributed by the One Heart World-Wide organization to families in Tibet, can save the lives of mothers and babies with no access to health care. Courtesy of One Heart World-Wide. Gift image: Premier Packaging.

Compassionate Giving Online ABC Home’s Gifts of Compassion
: gifts of service, gift registry for 34 nonprofits
: gifts of service, gift registry, wish lists
: rates nonprofits on how they use donor dollars
: rates 1.7 million nonprofits, with tips on giving wisely
: gift certificates, gift baskets, gift registry, wish lists
: Heifer Project’s online catalog with gifts, wish lists, wedding registry
: Oxfam America’s online gift catalog
: Seva Foundation’s Gifts of Service
: tribute cards, gifts of service

What are your ideas for conscious gift-giving this year?

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
fjamesc's picture

I've used Oxfam Unwrapped for all of my family holiday presents a couple of times (including this year), and I have been very pleased with that experience. I noticed just today that Huffington Post promoted a similar plan this season ... This kind of gift-giving, in fact, has really helped me with what I might call an "anti-Christmas" attitude I've struggled with off and on for 30 or more years (ever since I formally, definitively, emphatically declared myself as no longer being a Christian). Now, when I'm visiting my grandchildren for Christmas (every other year), I do buy them presents, and because my partner goes along with me for the shopping, I find it kind of enjoyable. I had a very bad experience with Christianity as a young adult, and I think I've got some work to do with anger or resentment or something. Christmas has always been a sort of abrasive reminder of the ubiquitous presence of Christianity in the United States, so this kind of gift-giving practice has been a great opportunity to help others in need as well as to take a look at negative thoughts and emotions that I still hold onto.

Hunterji's picture

Here's a truly Rebel Buddha gift idea:

Brave New Prayers

"... the single best prayer book I've ever found...
the holiest, rowdiest, truest, and most intimately
connected with the tricky nature of the Divine Wow."
~ Rob Brezsny


jdoliver3's picture

If you're still considering a humanitarian gift, check out New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof's suggestions ("The Gifts of Hope"). Kristof gives a shout-out to organizations that don't get the attention of biggies like Heifer International and the International Rescue Committee. The nine causes on his list this year include First Book (, which provides books for underprivileged children in America--low-income neighborhoods average only one book for every 300 kids, he says--and the Somaly Mam Foundation (, which fights sex slavery in Cambodia and elsewhere.

josesiem's picture

Out there in the "real world" (the world of those whose identity is not invested in bodhisattva-hood or saving the world) I'm doubtful that family and friends would be enthused about getting a note saying that $50 was donated to helping Tibetans. The simple reason is there was no intention or desire for them to do so. Whoever made the original donation receives all of the benefits from giving, while the one receiving receives literally nothing. It's ridiculous to think they'll get some kind of satisfaction out of it. One of the most important aspects of giving is the intention to do so. These kinds of gifts feel cheap and self-righteous to me. Have you asked others what they really think about this? I mean, people outside of the sangha or church? You won't get a real response from someone who's invested in being a save-the-world, bodhisattva type. In fact, who would want to admit that the idea is lame? The very admission would make them appear as some kind of selfish scrooge.

I'm no miser when it comes to donating to charities (I donated quite literally my last pennies to "Food for the Poor" and then my bank charged my a total of $135 dollars in overdraft fees!) but I still would think it cheap to receive one of these donations in my name.

IOW, if you want to donate to a cause, then fine, but don't pretend to be giving a gift to someone else at the same time.

jdoliver3's picture

Really good post, josesiem! With any gift, whether it's an object, an experience, or a donation in someone's behalf, the whole point is to consider what would be most meaningful and pleasing to the recipient. And we don't have to be "worthy" about every gift; the Buddha didn't rule out beauty and delight, so long as we keep it all in perspective.

I know people who, as you said, resent receiving a donation and see it as self-serving, but there are others who feel as if they've got enough "stuff" and genuinely get a kick out of knowing someone in need is getting help. Generosity seems like a straightforward practice, but it's complex and subtle. We have to pay close attention to other people's needs and wants, to our own motivation (and needs and wants), and realistically to our ability to give, financially and emotionally.

I just reread the section on generosity in "The Six Perfections," Occidental professor Dale Wright's take on the paramitas--practices for cultivating character and living an awakened life. (Sam Mowe posted a blogpost about the book on October 14, 2010.) The Buddha taught generosity as the first of the perfections because he considered it a prerequisite for practicing the others. But Wright talks about what happens when we take giving too far. What he calls "servility"--serving others without expecting anything in return--can be a vice, he says. We may think that being totally self-sacrificing is practicing “no-self,” but Wright notes that often it's a sign of inferiority, of not feeling worthy of others’ respect. Mutuality is a healthier form of giving, he proposes, because it acknowledges reciprocity “as an essential ingredient of enlightened social relations,” (He's apparently never been caught in the competitive gift-giving some families consider a Christmas sport.)

Wright even suggests that servility is a set-up for contempt. The self-sacrificing overgiver may earn others' contempt for being such a patsy, but even more insidious is the overgiver's contempt for the recipients of his or her largesse. (Mmmm. So that's what all those martyred aunts are really feeling . . .)

jdoliver3's picture

Nice blogpost, Maia. Thanks so much for the link. Your suggestions are excellent, and I love your enthusiasm about "receiving" the donkey intended for a farmer in Darfur. To add to your excellent list of suggestions--and the links we've provided above--here's yet another: This is a site that connects givers with a variety of different causes. Right now they're featuring close to 1,500 different organizations in over 100 countries--and in 15 different categories, from children, animals, and the environment to technology, microfinance, and women's development. The most popular cause is Home and Community for Orphans in Nepal; for just $15, a child will get shoes and a school uniform, while $70 provides medical care for a whole year. You can also give a gift card that let's the recipient chose the cause--or a gift subscription,to the Project-of-the-month Club. You can make a donation in honor of someone; I'm looking at causes now, to pick something that would have been dear to my sister's heart. even has a "recommended" list from New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, who covers Africa and takes a journalist there every year. One of Kristof's causes that intrigues me is HeroRATS, which trains rats to sniff out landmines and tuberculosis (not at the same time, I presume). Makes you love rats and want to help them out. $36 will buy a rat a year's supply of bananas (who knew), while $100 will set up a love nest--all the better to breed more HeroRATS.

Philip Ryan's picture

Rats and bananas! And here I thought their favorite was peanut butter! Thanks for this addition to your great article, Joan!

katherinesholtys's picture

An excellent organization that I have volunteered for over the past five years is Ashraya Initiative for Children. They work with marginalized children and their families from Denotified Tribes in Pune, India, through their Residential, Health, Education and Community Outreach Programs. You can order donation gift cards from them or print and send an e-card. Check out their website at:
Truly inspiring!

badman23's picture

Excellent advice for this timely season. Thank you to Ms. Oliver. I would recommend the US Foundation for Burma just because Aung San Suu Kyi is much on my mind these days. ABC Homes seems like an amazing group, thank you for introducing them to me.

I would also recommend what some efficiency expert once told me. When shopping for yourself, if you see something you want, write it down. THREE DAYS LATER go back and if you still want/need it, get it then. Interesting advice for contemplatives.

To the poster above, I would say, hello, link-farm much? If I were the admin here and this was my post, I would remove you, lol! Happy Winter Solstice, everyone!

maia.duerr's picture

I posted this link only because it was directly relevant to the article above and to the Buddhist community.

Philip Ryan's picture

Thank you, Maia. Your blogpost is a good one, and readers here should also drop by to read it! So much of this kind of thinking is needed in this season. We could post about it every hour of the day and it still wouldn't come close to "balancing" all the noise people are getting from the direction of consumerism.

badman23, thank you very much for your suggestions. You should note, however, that Maia Duerr has a great (even award-winning!) blog, which you should check out!

maia.duerr's picture

Thanks for the kind words, Philip. I understand where badman23 was coming from, but I did want to point out that the Jizo Chronicles post I linked to added a few more giving ideas to the great suggestions that Joan listed in her post here.
Dana paramita forever!!!

maia.duerr's picture

Nice post... more thoughts and ideas on holiday giving can also be found here on my blog, The Jizo Chronicles: