Want to Encourage Gifts That Really Matter? Plan an Alternative Gift Fair!

by Jennifer Oehme Knepper   |   May 4, 2017

Agf Kids Smiling

Are you ready to put more meaning into the year-end holidays? It's never too early to start planning an alternative gift fair. Here's one story about getting it done. 

If you're anything like me, you may approach the holiday season with trepidation, anxiety, or even intense reluctance. For years, I felt obligated to shop incessantly until I found the "perfect gift," to bake cookies, to send cards, and more. There's nothing inherently wrong with these activities, but for me, they didn’t bring a sense of fulfillment. If anything, the message sent by advertisers is that you have to buy THIS or THAT if you really want to be happy and to show your loved ones you care.

I'm an ICU nurse, and soon after graduating from college and immersing myself in this often sobering environment, I realized that the accumulation of stuff isn’t going to provide meaning in my life, especially around the holidays. One night at around 3 a.m., I happened to read an article about a group of women in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area who were putting on an alternative gift fair. At the event, several nonprofit organizations were hosting what was essentially a live version of a charity gift catalog (among the most familiar being Heifer International, where you can honor a loved one by gifting a needy community a cow, sheep, pig, or—my all-time favorite—honey bees).

Enraptured by this concept, I was shaken from my 3 a.m. doldrums and got the wheels spinning. I thought about ways to make this event possible in my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Surely if I felt this way about the holidays, then others in my community would be similarly delighted to give back to causes that improve the lives of people here in our country and around the world, rather than shilling out for another trinket, sweater, candle, and the like.

Fast-forward several years, and we're now in our tenth year of alternative giving! For me, there's nothing more rewarding than putting together an event like this, and I encourage YOU to rustle up some friends and get one started in your town!! We've found lots of great ideas that have been well-received (and some that haven't), so we're sharing our best practice findings to encourage you to start an alternative gift fair in your hometown!

Gifts that Give Hope grew out of that original women's giving circle that started among a group of friends who wanted to give back in their community. Our intention now is to serve as a resource center for groups seeking to host fairs in other communities around the country and abroad (we’ve even had a fair in British Columbia, Canada!).

Here are some suggestions from us:

1) Gather your team. Get together a group of diverse friends and other folks who are committed to the cause and who have varied talents and skills, as you will need people that can tackle graphics, design, accounting, PR, logistics, social media, and making community connections with civic and faith groups, radio stations, schools, etc. In Lancaster, we have a team of about 12 people that meet once a month to go over details of the fair (and there's always food at these meetings, because I’m Italian!).

Agf Upohar Photo

2) Food is a necessity. At our fairs, we invite local food vendors who have an international flare to provide a diverse offering of culinary delights. Several of our vendors are also social enterprises that employ refugees. For example, Upohar was started by Srirupa Dasgupta, originally from India, who after hearing social entrepreneur Muhammed Yunus speak, wanted to find a sustainable way to provide meaningful employment for refugees. She started a catering business that employs refugees to cook foods from Bangladesh, Iraq, Myanmar, Syria, and more—you can imagine how tasty everything is!

3) Find a great space. We host this event at a community center, but you could use a church, school, market, etc. In our setup, the nonprofits with the alternative gifts are housed in one room, and there's a separate room with fair trade and social enterprise gifts (including Bead for LifeCanaan Fair Trade Olive OilDivine Chocolate, as well as items produced locally in Lancaster such as Light on a Hill Candles made by women transitioning out of prison, and Revolution jewelry, made out of recycled leather by women experiencing homelessness. These items make a great accompaniment to the alternative gifts.

4) Timing is key. Look for local community events or national/international events that coincide with your mission. At the 2016 gift fair, our event fell on Human Rights Day, commemorating the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. We provided red balloons at various tables as part of a scavenger hunt to educate people about the various articles of the Declaration; the balloons gave clues about the organizations that were part of the hunt, addressing access to rights such as education, freedom, justice, representation, healthcare, and more. Our intention is that the gift fair isn't just a place to buy meaningful holiday gifts, but also a conduit for building community through education, engagement, and empowerment.

5) Encourage participation of the nonprofits themselves. At one of our recent fairs, a group of young children performed on the drums, representing the nonprofit organization SWAN: Scaling Walls a Note at a Time, which provides music lessons to children of incarcerated parents. The children share some of their repertoire at the fair, and everyone is encouraged and inspired to hear their talent and to recognize the power of their potential.

6) Get creative! Encourage your participating nonprofits to engage their audience creatively. At our event, Dr. Kistler, a pediatrician and a champion for early literacy through her work with the national program Reach Out and Read, wears her signature Dr. Seuss hat. Meanwhile, Brad Zuke with World Bicycle Relief enthusiastically shows off the rugged and durable bike that his organization distributes to help children get to school safely and to help people access the healthcare they need and more.

Agf Bike Photo

7) Find champions! We partner with a local faith-based radio station that's been our media partner for 10 years now, and we've also found our niche with our event partner—a locally owned newspaper that features stories about the fair and the concept of alternative giving. Share your event with your faith community, schools, and workplace. Just this past year, we heard from a violin teacher who had received a gift to continue the work of SWAN that he had never, in all his years of teaching, received such a meaningful gift!

This is just one of the countless reasons we keep pursuing this notion that the holidays don’t have to be filled with hectic and harried trips to the mall, pushing strangers around looking for the best deal on the latest plastic gadget that will break in a few weeks anyway. The holidays can be filled with joy and purpose as you sit back to contemplate the special people in your life and think about what is important to them.

For me, after realizing how fortunate I was to have been able to pursue my education—as compared to many other women around the world—I now give my parents annual gifts that support the education of young women in parts of the world where they historically are hindered or restricted from school.

So with that, I encourage you to consider starting something like this in your area. It doesn’t have to be big or grand: start out at a pace and size that's manageable for your team. If you want to check it out before diving in, come visit us for our 10th annual gift fair on December 9, 2017 in Lancaster! We’re only a short drive from Philadelphia, New York, D.C., and more. You can reach us at lancastergiftfair@gmail.com and check out all the resources at www.giftsthatgivehope.org/lancaster.

Best wishes from all of us at Gifts That Give Hope Lancaster!!!

Want to learn more? Check out New Dream's Alternative Gift Fairs 101 resources!

Jennifer Oehme Knepper MSN, RN, CCRN is Fair Coordinator at Gifts That Give Hope Lancaster.