How to Innovate Your Gift-Giving

No more gift cards. No more last minute gifts. No more spending money?

How to Innovate Your Gift-Giving
[Image: Flickr user JD Hancock]

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


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 four innovative gift-giving strategies:

1. Figure out what would make 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 things he could buy for her, 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.

2. 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 says. 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.


3. 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.

This principle, that 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.

4. 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 ’60s 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 The Art of Doing 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.