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Photo: The Spinoff/Getty Images
Photo: The Spinoff/Getty Images

MoneyDecember 3, 2020

Christmas without the clutter: A better alternative to unwanted gift-giving

Photo: The Spinoff/Getty Images
Photo: The Spinoff/Getty Images

We’ve all bought or received gifts we know are never going to be used, which is why The Good Registry has created a way to channel those wasted funds into making a difference.

Three years ago, Christine Langdon decided to give up a lucrative career in corporate communications to do something a little bit different. She didn’t know exactly what that “something different” was, but she’d always gravitated towards work related to social good, whether that be managing communications for the Red Cross or implementing Z Energy’s approach to community investment. “I realised I wanted to do more work where I could see the real tangible benefits of what I was doing. I wasn’t so much wanting to stay on that corporate path anymore, so I quit. I didn’t have a plan, I just knew I wanted to create something that would enable me to feel like I had a bigger way to give back.”

Then in 2017 while decluttering her house, Langdon stumbled onto a pile of old gifts that had never been used. Shortly after, she received more gifts for her birthday, several of which were quickly added to the growing pile. Eventually, it got her thinking: what if the money spent on those unnecessary gifts were donated to good causes instead? With a sketch of an idea in mind, Langdon shared her concept with two former colleagues and friends – Tracey Bridges and Sue McCabe – whose support eventually led to The Good Registry, an online social enterprise platform that allows people to “give more joy, not more stuff”. 

After a three month sprint to get up and running, The Good Registry launched in December 2017 just in time for Christmas. Since then, more than 7,000 people have used The Good Registry to donate more than $400,000 to charities, replacing an estimated 13,000 unwanted gifts in the process. For those receiving gifts, they can use the platform to create an online registry for their special event (eg birthday, wedding, anniversary) and choose from one of 65 charities through which loved ones can donate to. For those giving gifts, they can purchase a gift card through the platform through which the recipient can use to donate to one or more charities of their choice. 

Causes supported by The Good Registry

While Christmas isn’t the only occasion people buy and receive unwanted gifts, it’s certainly the time when it’s most prevalent as many New Zealanders find themselves having to buy multiple gifts at the same time. Last year, well over 5,000 listings for unwanted gifts had been uploaded to Trade Me by Boxing Day, with clothing and books some of the most common items listed. And while it’s unknown what the total value of these unwanted items was, one study in Australia found an estimated A$400 million was spent on 10 million unwanted gifts for Christmas in 2018. In the United States, that number was closer to US$15.2 billion.

“Christmas is that time of the year when everyone is focused on giving, but we all have that sense of discomfort either with some of the gifts that we’re buying or with some of the gifts that we’re receiving,” says Langdon. “To keep finding something that’s meaningful year after year is an incredible challenge, especially when you get to things like Secret Santa gifts when you often don’t know the person you’re buying for that well. The risk is that we exchange a whole lot of junk.”

Currently, The Good Registry deducts 10% from all donations which it uses to cover credit and debit card processing fees, website maintenance and other administrative costs. While donating to charities directly would avoid this deduction, Langdon says there are several reasons why donating via The Good Registry makes sense, the main one being the cumulative or “snowball” effect of seeing people come together for a good cause.

“If you asked someone to give to a charity instead of getting you a gift, you don’t get to see whether people did or how much was collectively raised. Also, [the person giving the gift] doesn’t know if you’ve had visibility of their donation. So it’s building that sense of collective contribution.” She cites a recent wedding registry as an example, which raised more than $14,000 for the SPCA and St John between 80 or so of the couple’s family and friends.

“Nobody would know that if they’d donated straight to the cause … hopefully, five or even 10 of those people decide to do the same thing for their birthday or special event.”

The Good Registry co-founders (L-R): Christine Langdon, Tracey Bridges, Sue McCabe

Langdon also cites the benefits the platform has for corporates, particularly those who give gifts to their staff or customers during this time of the year. “It’s hard enough to buy a gift for a family member year after year and know if they’re going to appreciate it, so how is that possible to do for 10 staff or 100 staff? I couldn’t buy something for everybody in my family and expect them to all appreciate and use that gift, so we can’t possibly do that for all our clients or team members.

“What some corporates also do is instead of giving their staff or their customers a gift, they say they’ve made a donation to this charity. What we think is really important though is if my gift is this donation to charity, then I should get to have the joy of the experience of making the donation and deciding where the donation goes. So instead of a corporate saying they’ve made a donation on their customer or staff member’s behalf, they can say ‘here’s the donation we’ve made, you get to decide which charity you want it to go to’.”

Right now, The Good Registry isn’t making a profit but promises to reduce the fee on donations when it starts doing so. But there’s a difficult road ahead in order to make this happen – gift-giving is a complex emotional process which is tightly woven into our social fabric, and we often feel we need give something material during these special occasions either out of obligation or a desire to show appreciation.

“Gift-giving is so deeply entrenched in our culture – celebrating special occasions and milestones with gifts goes back so far, plus advertising sells use the idea that we need to buy people gifts,” says Langdon. “We’ve definitely encountered people who say they love the idea of money going to charity instead, but they can’t quite get past the social discomfort of not buying a gift because it’s what we’ve been conditioned to do for so long.

“We’ve also heard  people say, for example: ‘I couldn’t go to a children’s birthday party and not take a gift, could I?’ But I would challenge people around why you would give a child a gift that essentially trashes the planet to show somebody that you care. Give people things that they want or need, and that includes children. Let children have the experience of charitable giving and have them think about their role as kaitiaki. This is their planet after all.”

While meaningful gift-giving will always have a place in society – particularly when it’s done ethically, sustainably and locally – it shouldn’t be a wasteful or stressful process. Covid-19 has made it an extremely challenging year for some of our businesses, but the same goes for some of our charities as well with many fundraising events cancelled and sources of revenue wiped out. Supporting the local economy doesn’t just mean supporting our businesses – it can mean supporting our charities and those in need as well.


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