The Art of Doing

Giftopia: How to Innovate Your Gift-Giving

Instead of devoting all of your cognitive energy to choosing between the reindeer sweater and the iTunes gift card, why not get creative with the act of gift giving this year?


Get creative with the act of gift giving

American adults will spend on average nearly $800 on gifts this holiday season according to the Gallup poll. That’s a decent chunk of change that we shell out in cash or put on our credit cards to express our affection, gratitude or commitment to our loved ones, friends and co-workers. But in this era of technological disruption and entrepreneurial innovation why has the act of gift giving changed so little?

We might not always think of it this way, but most gifts in a market economy such as ours, are economic exchanges. Say you walk into a store or go online and find the perfect Marc Jacobs bag. And then you pay for the bag.  Now you own it. And then–Happy Birthday! or Merry Christmas!–the act of giving the bag, properly wrapped and carded, transfers the ownership of the gift from you to the giftee.

But is that all there is? Why not get creative with the act of gift giving instead of devoting all of our cognitive energy to choosing between the reindeer sweater and the iTunes gift card?

Here are five innovative gift-giving strategies:

Figure out what would make that special someone truly happy

This past summer, London designer Ben Pentreath wracked his brains to come up with a present for his best friend, Valentina Rice for her birthday. Instead of making a mental inventory of consumer goods he could purchase for her (a limited-edition Escada scarf? Aqua di Parma bath salts?), he asked a question that gift givers don’t always ask themselves, “What would truly make this person happy?” Rice had recently made a huge life change, leaving her high-powered position at a publishing house to start her own business, Many Kitchens, an online marketplace for artisanal food. It occurred to Pentreath that Rice was working so hard to get her business off the ground that what would make her truly happy would be to help build awareness for her site. With a post on his popular design blog, Pentreath asked his readers to head over to Rice’s e-commerce site to order something, “And then get your friends to do the same,” he wrote, adding, “This could get quite funny.” Rice woke up on her birthday to find a virtual flashmob of purchasers had descended on her site leaving her inbox flush with orders.

Invest in the gift-giving of others

Some innovative companies have decided it’s worth the investment to promote gift giving between employees because it promotes a better company culture and as a result, surely can’t hurt the bottom line. Zappos earmarks $600 a year for each employee to gift other employees for “random acts of wowness,” as CEO Tony Hsieh told us. That adds up to a cool $1.5 million in company-wide feel-good gifts every year. At Google, an employee can give another employee $150 of Google’s money. All that is required is that the giver, “write at least a sentence to explain why the other employee deserves it,” a Google exec explained. The power of these peer-to-peer gifts has been shown to mean more and have more value to employees than monetary rewards from a manager according to Google Research. Okay, you’re not Google but still, an investment in the gift-giving of others is a model that could be replicated in small companies or even in families. Give your employees (or kids) a hundred bucks, or even just twenty to gift to co-workers or family members throughout the year for acts of loyalty, achievement or for just being super cool.

Incite Prosocial Gifting

What’s better than giving to a good cause? Inciting others to give to a good cause. And even better, doing it on a grand scale. But how are you going to persuade people bombarded with charity pleas to open up their wallets for a worthy cause? After Hurricane Katrina Brad Pitt realized that if he wanted to get more people involved in the New Orleans’s reconstruction effort rather than to put out a general appeal for cash, why not offer those who wanted to help a way to feel directly connected to those who needed help? Anyone logging on to Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation could choose from a ceiling fan, a tree, a porch, even a whole house to gift to a displaced resident. And the foundation made it easy (and appealing!) to gift a gift to someone else. In other words, you could gift that front porch in someone else’s name. Pitt utilized the principle that although it feels good to give, it feels even better for gifters if they can actually see the effect of their gift. Reseachers call empathic joy was demonstrated in a study. Technology has only amplified this connection of would-be gifters to meaningful causes that can then be gifted to friends, colleagues and family members to spread good feelings and sorely needed help–sponsorship of a polar bear, the purchase of bricks and mortar for a schoolhouse in Africa, the preservation of an acre of land endangered by development.

Shock your family and friends by starting a gift economy

What would happen if you took money out of the equation all together? Anthropologists call it a gift economy. Goods and services are offered based on local customs, without money changing hands. In Mali, they call it dama—when a host gifts food or jewelry to a guest of their home with no expectation of anything in return. In the 60’s the Diggers of San Francisco (inspired by the 17th century English Diggers) practiced a gift economy by giving away stuff for free. The Digger’s influence is seen today in freecycle communities, Really Really Free Markets and at Burning Man, which came about at an early Burning Man festival when someone set up a stand and tried to surreptitiously sell jewelry recalls Larry Harvey, the festival’s founder. “It was as if someone had come to the family picnic and said, ‘Granny you want some potato salad? That’ll be $2.99.’” After that, all vending at Burning Man was banned, except for ice and the goods in one café. Gifting became second on the list of the 10 Burning Man principles. It’s a kind of generosity that Harvey says is contagious and life transforming, a belief echoed in what business guru Guy Kawasaki described to us in our book as, “The most powerful favor…the one given with no clear link between the favor and what you want back.” So the next time someone comes to your home for a dinner party or a Sunday football game see what happens when you give them the feel-good shock of a gift for no reason.

Blow someone’s mind

Okay, so you’ve decided you want to go the traditional route and just give a damn gift. Comedian Ophira Eisenberg recounts a tale of receiving a gift so profound its meaning dwarfed the value of any object that might have been purchased in a store. It all unfolded in Eisenberg’s tiny New York City apartment under the most ordinary circumstances, as she recounts in her hilarious memoir. Eisenberg’s boyfriend, Jonathan, cooked her a meal and then casually took out a piece of red origami paper and began to fold it. Not unusual for a Japanese paper-folding hobbyist. As Jonathan created a paper crane he told Eisenberg how according to Japanese folklore folding a thousand cranes could bring you luck or health. Or, as he told her, in his favorite version of the folktale, if you give the person you love a thousand cranes, your love will last forever. “He thumbed the final crease, checked that the wings flapped properly, and handed me the little red paper bird,” and said, “This is number one thousand.” Then, he asked her to open a box on the floor where she found a multitude of hand-folded paper cranes different colors and sizes—999 cranes to be exact (that he’d been folding for years). Reach in, he told her, so she thrust her hands in the box. Nestled inside the cranes she found a small clamshell box. You can probably guess where the story goes from here and you’d be right. Moral of the story: Not all gifts are created equal, so when you give one, why not try to blow the giftee’s mind. PS: Eisenberg’s answer was, “Yes.”

A version of this article first appeared in Fast Company here.

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