It's that time of year again. You can't turn around without being bombarded by images of the storybook Christmas -- snowflakes falling gently on firs as carolers serenade through streets filled with warmly lit houses, each with a lavishly decorated tree in the window. It's as much a fantasy as Santa Claus, of course, with the reality of the season more a matter of overcrowded mall parking lots, piles of Christmas cards to write, the stress of finishing shopping in time, and visits with prickly relatives. It's easy to lose track of the point of Christmas in the rush, and for me it has nothing to do with the religious connotations that exclude so many members of other creeds and cultures.
It wasn't until I tried to explain Christmas to my wife, who grew up in a Jewish household, that I was able to put words to why it's a special concept. Despite it having been turned into a capitalist feeding frenzy, I see Christmas as a way that we, as a society, have institutionalized being nice to other people. There's no reason we can't think of others throughout the year, but the blunt truth is that relatively few of us do. Normally, we don't call, we don't write, we don't send gifts, and we certainly don't tell those close to us how important they are. Christmas provides a framework in which we can do all those things, complete with a language -- it's easier to send a Christmas card to someone than to stammer, awkwardly, that you like them. And the combination of "Merry Christmas" and a thoughtful gift stands in for finding the words to tell someone what they mean to you.
The side of my family with whom we celebrate Christmas is close, and we've been celebrating the holiday in much the same way for my entire life. However, the tenor of Christmas morning has changed slightly as we've grown up and grown older, and as we've all become more well-off. Gifts have a bit less meaning when there are more of them and we could have bought them for ourselves. And like all too many people, we simply don't need more stuff cluttering our houses and our lives.
So we've slowly been changing the kind of gifts we exchange, and instead of just contributing to society's stream of stuff, we're now trying to direct some of our giving in ways that can still convey the appropriate message in the language of Christmas while at the same time addressing problems of poverty, the environment, or education. And while the desire to modify our holidays in this way came from within, the Internet has made it possible.
I like helping people -- it's why I write about Macs and the Internet -- but I find it more difficult to contribute to charity. Perhaps it's a combination of growing up with little money and a dogged belief that everyone is responsible for making their own way in life, but I'm just not comfortable donating willy-nilly. Plus, I always worry that a charity might be either a scam or just incompetent (though now I always check the GuideStar database of charities first), and I hate being dunned for money, especially on the phone (the American Institute of Philanthropy offers some useful tips for giving wisely ). Thanks to these and other Internet resources, I've slowly assembled an approach to charitable giving that fits my style. If you're anything like me, take a moment to check out these sites and see if they, or others like them, might be deserving of your support, too.
The easiest way to get started with online charity is via the "clicktivism" sites run by GreaterGood.com (using Apple's WebObjects!). Visit one of their sites, like the successful Hunger Site, where clicking a Donate Free Food button shows you a page of ads from sponsors whose ad payments go to buying food for people in impoverished nations. It's a clever approach -- unlike most banner ads, people actually look at these, and the sponsors also gain through the association with a worthy cause. I've set Internet Explorer to subscribe to the Hunger Site and several of GreaterGood.com's other sites so I receive e-mail every day (you can donate only once per day). Of course, these sites won't do squat for your holiday lists, but I found them effective in getting me to think about charitable giving online.
The next bit of cleverness comes from sites such as iGive.com, which use the popular affiliate model to direct a percentage of the money you spend at normal Internet retailers to charities. All you have to do is start your holiday shopping at iGive.com when you know you're going to order from a site such as Amazon.com or Outpost.com, and the retailer will send iGive.com a set percentage of your total to donate to a charity you specify. It's a painless approach to giving while shopping.
Both of these approaches are impersonal, though. I feel as though I'm making more of a difference, while still acquiring presents, by shopping at a site such as SERRV, which carries products made by people in developing countries. What I like about this approach is that it feels less like a donation than a way of supporting cottage industries.
Even shopping at SERRV adds to the burgeoning pile of presents under the tree on Christmas morning. Last year, my sister found an excellent way around that with a group she found via the Internet -- the Heifer Project. Instead of giving money or food to needy families, the Heifer Project instead provides them with farm animals they can rely on for food and income. For me, my sister donated enough to buy a flock of ducks for a family in Latin America; because her donation bought something whose value I truly understood from having grown up on a farm, the gift meant a lot to me.
A somewhat similar organization I'm looking into this year is the Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA), which makes tiny loans called "microcredit" to self-employed poor (mostly women) who need small amounts of capital (typically $50 to $300) to start or expand businesses. I especially appreciate the approach of helping people help themselves, and FINCA has been extremely effective, with a repayment rate of over 96 percent (that's better than commercial banks achieve).
Charitable organizations also focus on environmental issues. Last year, as a present for my mother, who has liked turtles since having one as a girlhood pet, we adopted an endangered sea turtle for her for a year via the Sea Turtle Survival League. The money goes to research and protection, and in a twist that helps bring you closer to the end result of your phil-turtle-thropy, you can track the movements of your turtle via a satellite tracking device monitored over the Internet. Too often we're completely removed from the problems we're ostensibly helping to solve (which is of course one of the reasons the problems exist at all); anything that helps us connect on a personal level with these issues is a good thing.
Obviously, many of these charities existed long before the Internet, but just as the Internet has changed the face of shopping, so too has it affected philanthropy. Just the trouble of finding organizations whose goals match your beliefs can be an insurmountable hurdle, and the Internet also lowers all sorts of other barriers to giving. I certainly don't want to descend into that deadly earnestness that makes me want to slap pitchmen for charities. ("Give now, or these cute children might never learn to golf.") But hey, give some thought to replacing a present or two with a gift that could go toward making the world a better place for us to live. And maybe in the end we'll all come a little closer to those storybook images of Christmas.
Contributing Editor ADAM C. ENGST is the publisher of the online Mac newsletter TidBits.