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Buy less, donate more — how American families can increase charitable giving during the holiday season

Tips for saving money this holiday season
Tips for saving money this holiday season 05:07

It all had the makings of a classic Christmas crisis: Neal Gorenflo was in his mid-40s living in Northern California, building his start-up nonprofit organization, and he was overworked, stressed out and fed up with the materialism – and massive expense– of the holiday season. 

He wanted to explode in frustration, he said. 

At the same time, he was getting more "civically involved in his community" and he started thinking about how this time of the year could be more of an opportunity for families to think about how to give back. 

After speaking with his then-girlfriend, now wife, an admittedly self-righteous Gorenflo blasted out an email to his family who live spread across the country "bashing Christmas and the gift giving," and asking to stop giving presents and instead give to charity.  

The response wasn't positive, he said. His family felt he had attacked a "cherished institution," and "it was hard to stop presents coming to children."

But after further conversation with his father, a retired Navy captain, the Gorenflo family decided to email each other about causes they are passionate about and then each family member could decide to donate. One condition was granted – they could still give presents to the children. 

The family called these requests a "donation exchange" and every year during the holiday season they send requests to their immediate and extended family. 

"You don't have to be a millionaire"

The Gorenflos join the rising group  – two out of three Americans – who plan to give back this holiday season.  Spending has shot up in recent years with the regular shopper spending an average of $975 – a $100 jump from last year – on gifts this season, according to a 2023 survey by Gallup. The largest increase in holiday shopping was among middle-income families and young people. 

A recent survey by Fidelity Charitable found that 54% of parents said that starting a family increased the priority of giving in their lives, with 82% of those parents saying that children had an influential impact on the types or numbers of organizations they support.

"You don't have to be a millionaire to support the causes you care about," Amy Pirozzolo, head of donor engagement at Fidelity Charitable, told CBS News. 

She recommends that families use the holiday season to take some simple steps towards giving, including volunteering as a family, talk about interesting service projects or ideas, or give together. 

It's important that families discuss charitable giving together, and see it as important within their lives, she said. One offshoot of this conversation, Pirozzolo said, is that her office has seen the next generation of philanthropists moving from "charitable giving to charitable living."

"Leading with compassion"

This idea appeals to Dr. James Doty, a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education

As spending increases, people are feeling more isolated and stressed than ever before. A 2021 survey found that 3 in 5, or 61%, of adult U.S. workers reported being lonely, up more than five-fold from 2018. An earlier survey found that shopping and more "material wealth" often leads to loneliness and isolation. 

Doty, who grew up in extreme poverty, told CBS News thinking with compassion and giving to others often brings people the most happiness – more so than material items. "Not everyone will live in a big mansion or drive a Ferrari or Porsche," he said. 

And striving towards success as a measure of success can create more unhappiness. Doty said he learned through his life experiences and research that "true satisfaction" comes through service and purpose.

He recommends that families "model their actions," as often children follow their parents' worldview. Doty said if children are exposed early to the idea of giving, they're more likely to give as well. 

Doty said that what's given doesn't have to be money and there are plenty of things people can do for free that show charitable intentions, including the "act of being kind."

"Simply being kind to others is a very powerful thing," said Doty. 

Keeping the tradition going

Gorenflo said he "learned more about my family" in the close to 20 years since they started the donation chain than he previously had known. He said he found out about passions that drive his two brothers, his parents, cousins and other extended family. The giving, Gorenflo, now 60, said, brought them closer together.

One year, Gorenflo donated money to his youngest brother's neighbor, who had two kids with muscular dystrophy. Through his oldest brother, a retired Navy commander, he learned more about the Navy by donating to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society

The family also donated to an old neighbor who was struggling after Hurricane Katrina. 

Gorenflo also said his family has learned more about him and his work in the not-for-profit sector as the former CEO of Shareable, which encourages citizens to share resources.

Together, he estimated his family has raised more than $10,000 for charities.

He said in 2023, his goal is to encourage his 13-year-old son to pick a charity. Gorenflo asked his son what kind of causes he's interested in. And he answered immediately with one word — food. An aspiring chef, his son said he wants to feed hungry people. 

Together, the father and son picked a charity. His request will go out in the 2023 donation exchange. 

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