If you’ve ever donated to a nonprofit, you’ve probably started receiving those fancy holiday donation asks. Heartfelt letters, email campaigns, impact reports—these are just a few of the ways nonprofits reach out to us during the holidays to help fund their work. Out of all these holiday fundraising materials though, my personal favorite is the handy nonprofit gift catalogue.
You know the one I’m talking about. The cover usually features a woman with a brightly colored dress carrying a woven basket, or a smiling child holding some kind of adorable baby farm animal.
In big bold letters we learn that inside this catalogue there is the potential for us to literally save children from slavery. Like straight up save them. I mean, who wouldn’t be into opening THAT on Christmas morning?
Inside we’re told we can choose from holiday gifts like providing 10 homeless people with hot meals for the incredibly low price of $35. That one is conveniently labeled item #1254 for easy checkout.
I remember the first time I ordered from one of these catalogues. It was so easy and convenient. Kind of like shopping online for a sweater.
I grabbed my catalogue, browsed through all the succinct descriptions of needed items by some of the world’s poorest people, picked out the ones I thought would make the best gifts for my family AND be the best bang for my holiday gift budget, went to the link and clicked order. It felt so satisfying—heartfelt, good for humanity, even environmentally friendly! It had all the good samaritan feels wrapped up in a big neat bow.
But then as I started working in this field and diving deeper into issues of poverty, something about the nonprofit gift catalogue began to feel…kinda icky. Like it was no longer about selfless giving, and more about instant consumerist self-gratification in disguise.
So despite the convenience, the feel-good process, and the impressive photos and layout, I made the decision to skip the gift catalogue and simply give the old fashioned way—through annual donations and monthly gifts.
It’s not that I’m saying donating through gift catalogues doesn’t help people. Any donation you give can have a positive impact when it goes to a reputable non-profit who is transparent about where your money is going.
The problem is the story narrative that gift catalogues create.
They perpetuate the illusion that buying a chicken for an economically poor child will save them. Or that people in need are one-dimensional products we can buy and give to our loved ones for Christmas. They cause the line between consumerism and philanthropy to become blurred and hide the complexities of real people dealing with incredibly complicated social and economic issues. Worst of all, they further distance us from those we hope to support, allowing us to become passive, uninformed, zombie donors.
The fact that nonprofits are asking us for holiday donations is completely fine. This is what they are supposed to do. This is what they have to do to complete their work. The issue is how they package it.
But here’s the thing: the gift catalogue is actually not the real problem. It’s not even the non-profits who create them. The problem…is us. The donors. We’re asking to be baited with flashy catalogues that remind us of our favorite clothing brand in order to be motivated enough to give.
So here’s my pitch—let’s make things easier on our favorite charities this holiday season. Let’s help them reduce their operating costs and enable them to have more time for the real work on the ground instead of having to create expensive, time-consuming marketing materials for us.
Instead of buying item #1038 for your grandma this year, give a simple annual gift or a monthly donation in their honor to help sustain nonprofits throughout the year.
The point is we don’t need flashy catalogs. Let’s take the time to research the best nonprofits, give them a simple, straightforward donation, and trust them to put it where it’s most needed.
Because buying a farm animal for a child may feel like a good holiday gift to you, but that child’s story is so much more than that baby goat.
Melissa Pack is a Freelance Writer and Florist. As a Co-Curator at Ethical Storytelling, she writes for and edits the ES blog. Melissa has worked in the fields of Philanthropy, Global Development, and Human Services for the last 10 years. She’s worked with nonprofits such as One Day’s Wages, Village Volunteers, The Center for African Education, and Cocoon House. She’s a believer in the idea that humility and vulnerability are the storyteller’s greatest assets. To connect with Melissa you can find her on Facebook or Linkedin.