Sacrificial year-end giving

Each year signs of the holidays appear: lights on trees, candles in windows, calendars on sale in local businesses. For some of us, another item on that list is a growing pile of end-of-the-year appeals from nonprofit organizations.

The pile, along with each letter, poses a challenge: Where and how should we give whatever we have to give at this time of year?

One approach would be to decide on an amount one’s household could spare, and then give a portion of that to each of the organizations with which one has a connection. For some, a few of those donations can be combined with gifts in honor of a loved one.

Yet the pile of letters can be a cause for further reflection. Our households may only see a few of those organizations as ones in which we are deeply invested: a church we count on during momentous occasions and everyday struggles, or an organization doing work with which we feel like we are participating at every step. What would it look like to give to those organizations as if they were near the center of our lives?

The recession has already taken its toll, reducing organizations in size and causing some to close their doors. Some groups are suffering because of cuts in government spending. Yet whatever one’s philosophy of government spending, each of us has some capacity to vote with our resources. Which organizations or programs do we most want to see continue?

Some of us don’t have many financial resources beyond what is required for household needs, and primarily contribute time and energy to communities and causes.

Yet most of us do have some discretionary income and spend it in ways that reflect our values to varying degrees. In worship ser­vices we call our cash and checks an offering to God. Should an offering also be a sacrifice? Are there places we can cut back to the point where we feel the lack of what we’re not buying, but know that we are financially supporting something we care about more than what we’ve given up?

Part of the challenge of end-of-the-year giving is that it comes during the same time of year that many of us are choosing Christmas gifts for our loved ones. Even gifts that are not extravagant individually can require substantial spending when added together.

Some choose to shop fair trade as much as possible, knowing that some of the money paid for each item contributes to increasing the standard of living of people in poverty.

An additional idea came through one of the appeals I received: an invitation to an Alternative Giving Fair. On a Saturday in December, members of a congregation set up 15 gift stations where participants could make items such as bottle cap magnets, spice rubs and sugared pecans. The congregation provided materials — which were re­used when possible — and volunteers guided participants in making the gifts. The money collected at each gift station on top of costs went to an organization building wells for potable water in Nica­ragua.

One of the event’s aims is to reorient priorities away from consumerism, said Brit Holmberg, an organizer. “It’s hard to do it alone,” he said. The giving fair provides a community environment to learn new practices, such as making one’s own breakfast cereal, which some of the congregation’s households have continued after the holidays are over.

However and wherever we choose to give this year, may we give both sacrificially and joyfully, as we prepare our lives for the coming of Jesus our Lord.

Celeste Kennel-Shank is a master of divinity student at the University of Chicago.