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More than meets the eye

More than meets the eye

Gita Balakrishnan December 23, 2019
Looking beyond presents in this season of giving.

The season of giving is upon us. People across the world have been crowding shopping malls and department stores or filling up their carts on Amazon, trying to find the perfect gift for their loved ones. But gift giving is a gesture that goes beyond the Christmas season. Throughout the year, we share with loved ones in ways beyond material items. Some give donations, volunteer their time, or simply offer their presence to those in need of friendship. These nonmaterial virtues are oftentimes not viewed as gifts. But sometimes such gifts mean much more. Here, University experts reflect on gift giving and what it means to the gifts you give and the gifts you receive.

Father Bertrand Andrew Buby, S.M. ’55
Professor emeritus, Department of Religious Studies

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the houses they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” This verse from the Bible in Matthew 2:11 speaks to the essence of the idea of gift giving. It relates to us the story of the three Magi visiting the Holy Mother Mary to bestow gifts to the new child.

First, it’s a very good Marianist passage because it shows us to never separate Mother Mary from her child. Her purpose is to be by his side. But, it’s also a very good scene to symbolize what gift giving is all about. Here are these three men, probably coming from the area of Iran, coming to this strange land to bring gifts to this newborn child. They had never been to the land before, and it took them a long time to walk there. But, because of the prophecy, they wanted to bestow gifts as a sign of hope and happiness.

"God gave us the ultimate gift by giving us our human nature."

But, I think gift giving is also more important when it’s not material. I think of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son … .” God gave us the ultimate gift by giving us our human nature. God doesn’t work other than through us so it’s important to give of ourselves. It’s important to be of service to others. I am at my best when I give of myself, my talents, my person, my generosity. Giving ourselves helps us develop as a person. These gifts are more precious than material gifts.

Tim Kao
Director, International Student and Scholar Services

photo illustration of a hand giving a giftThe idea of giving is universal but it manifests itself differently across cultures. For some of the communities we serve, the symbolism and expectations that come with giving carry more weight. For instance, in East Asian countries, a gift most often should be reciprocated. Who gives what to whom and when can also be complicated depending on status and circumstances.

The meaning of giving gifts is dependent on context, and there is no greater context than culture, both capital ‘C’ and little ‘c’. We’re taught how to give by our families and it’s reinforced by those around us.
I can share my own experience. My family emigrated here in the 1970s and had very little money. Giving to strangers was the last thing on their minds, so in that sense the idea of giving to charity was a new idea for them. Giving to friends and acquaintances was a completely different and frankly more important matter. In their culture, that form of giving is quite elaborate and deliberate. Reciprocity was expected. If you received a gift from someone, it had to be acknowledged in some form or another — either you did something or you gave something to return the favor, or else it was a major insult.

In terms of what giving means to me now, as an adult? I think we as Americans have the best of intentions, but we can also be very reckless. Giving just to give, in my opinion, is not a good use of resources. I want to give to people or organizations that I can be assured of some level of accountability. I want to know that the gift I’m giving is being used productively.

Peter Titlebaum
Professor, School of Education and Health Sciences

I have been teaching a sales and fundraising class for the last 13 years that teaches our students both the skills of sales and the importance of giving back through philanthropy. I teach our students the importance of storytelling when approaching donors to give. Because you are asking for money, you need your own mask to come off, to open up and tell a personal story that will resonate. That is scary for most people. In our first year, not one student could raise the goal of $1,000. Now, I have a student who has raised $8,540 for charity. It is amazing.

For me as an educator, it is important to mentor our students on the importance of giving back to the community, to charities, to those in need because at some point, someone gave and supported all of us. This is how we all got to where we are today.

"At some point, someone gave and supported all of us."

Our students will graduate, be on the board of some company or charity, and be faced with the opportunity to influence their communities. If I can teach them now the importance of giving — and not just money but even their time — then maybe down the road it may take root.

At the end of the day, people will give, but it is only for one of two reasons: Either they believe in your cause or they believe in you.

Riley Dugan
Assistant professor, School of Business Administration

I recently conducted a research study on what compels individuals to give when purchasing a product; what is commonly referred to as cause related marketing (CRM). For example, one increasingly common CRM campaign tells customers, if you purchase X item, we will donate that same item to someone in need. That is a great idea. But I had a question: Under what conditions do customers purchase X, and can this campaign ever backfire?

Our results are a bit shocking in terms of when people decide it’s appropriate to donate or not donate, or give or not give. First, it’s important to know that products can be categorized into two groups: utilitarian and hedonic. The utilitarian group consists of things that everyone needs, like book bags, water, pens, pencils and so forth. Hedonic items are the wants: the ice cream, concert tickets, tickets to a ball game, etc. We ran a series of studies where participants were confronted with either a utilitarian or hedonic product. Then, they could a) purchase one item and be on their way, or b) purchase one item and also choose to — at no extra cost — donate that item to someone else.

Our results consistently found that people were willing to donate utilitarian items to others but were not willing to donate hedonic items, even though in both scenarios there was no additional charge for doing so.

On a very basic level, what this shows me is that giving is based on two very different premises: a desire to belong and also a desire to be unique. People are willing to give necessities to others because it satisfies their need to belong, as in being a part of a broader “community.”

However, when it comes to hedonic items — the wants — people do not want to share them because it takes away much of the uniqueness of their own purchase experience, the feeling of being special.

I think pairing products with charitable initiatives is a good thing, but we also need to understand people’s underlying psychological needs.