Signs of Sustainability: Alternative Gifts Don’t Need to be the Alternative

By Devan Rosen

As we enter the beautiful winter season, full of moments in which we take time to appreciate the bounty of the fall harvest, the abundance of holiday gatherings and the wonderful community we live in.
One community initiative, however, will not be happening this year – as the Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair will not take place in 2016. After 12 wonderful years, and more than $550,000 in donations to participating organizations, the IAGF no longer has a fiscal sponsor.

Photo provided by the Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair A shopper talks with representatives from local non-profit organizations at a past Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair event.
Photo provided by the Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair
A shopper talks with representatives from local non-profit organizations at a past Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair event.

The Center for Transformative Action has been the fiscal sponsor for the IAGF since its inception in 2004, very generously donating a substantial amount of labor and support for most of that time. We literally could not have held any of the Ithaca Alternative Gift Fairs if it was not for the kindness and support of CTA. Unfortunately, CTA no longer has the capacity to support the IAGF and related needs.
First, looking back over the past 12 years, there are many people and organizations that we would like to thank. We would like to thank CTA for all of their guidance and overarching positivity over the years. We thank the many wonderful non-profit organizations that have participated in the previous fairs. It was a privilege to help support the important and amazing contributions that you all provide to our community. We are lucky to have you in our world. We thank all of the volunteers that helped make the fair go so smoothly each year. We thank our sponsors for helping defray the cost of the fair and for providing supplies and food.
We thank the members of the IAGF organizing team, both current and previous, for giving hundreds of hours over many months organizing each fair every year; some of who have been doing it for the majority of the 12 years. Finally, we thank the people of the greater Tompkins County region for attending our festive fair year after year – your smiles, support, contributions and input helped to make the IAGF one of the most successful alternative gift fairs in the United States.
Much has changed in the 13 years since the first Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair. Due to the work of many outstanding organizations, locally, nationally and internationally, there has been a shift in consciousness away from consumerism and towards what many see as the true spirit of the holidays: To express our thanks and love to the people that enrich our lives.
More and more people are seeking alternative ways to express this, and alternative gifts have provided many excellent options. The IAGF allowed people to make charitable donations to local non-profit organizations in someone’s honor – not just a gift for the people that receive them, but also a gift to countless others in our community and beyond. There are other options for thoughtful holiday gifts, like homemade or handmade gifts, or a gift of time or experience, like a meal or an outing. These alternative gifts exist as a complement to the excellent locally owned shops that offer fine options to purchase meaningful physical gifts, and supporting our local businesses is a critical part of our local economic sustainability.
Another important change over the past 13 years is the increase in ways that charitable contributions can be made to a non-profit organization online. First, many of these organizations now have the ability to accept donations on their website directly from individuals, which was far more difficult when we first started the IAGF. Second, in addition to the technical infrastructure, we now have organized “days of giving.”
Giving Tuesday, a global day of giving celebrated on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving – this year it is November 29 – is now in it’s 5th year. We also now have partners outside of the non-profit community, like our local “day of giving” hero GiveGab, who can help non-profits administer outstanding online giving events. Although these internet-based options have greatly expanded access to charitable giving, and are a convenient way to give, it is the excitement and lasting social connections of a community event like the IAGF that has kept the organizers, participants, and visitors coming back year after year.
The IAGF has been fortunate to have a collaborative organizing team throughout all 12 years, and we still have a team eager to continue the fair, but the last four fairs were challenging to organize. After losing some members of the organizing team, we communicated, with increasing tone each year, a serious need for volunteers to join the organizing team if the fair were to continue. Although we did garner help from several outstanding people, it was not sufficient for the fair to be truly sustainable. We kept it afloat, but not in a sustainable way.
It is in this sense that this Signs of Sustainability article is not only informing readers about the state of the IAGF, but as a reminder that community members need to make commitments to what they value. If our local community-based events and organizations are to be sustainable, then they need a stable influx of community support.
Announcing the hiatus of the fair this year has brought in several offers for core organizing committee member volunteers moving forward. For that we are exceedingly grateful and look forward to them joining the organizing team next year, but people should take note that when other local non-profit organizations and charitable events request volunteers, please consider volunteering before the need is critical, and the non-profit organization closes or the event ends.
Moving forward, the major need for the IAGF is to partner with a local 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor that can take the donations and pay out to the organizations. An alternative would be to make the IAGF a 501(c)(3) itself and hire our own accounting services. We are currently rethinking the IAGF and ways that we might be able to restart the fair in subsequent years. If you are interested in helping with that process, or if you are able to help with the 501(c)(3) process, either as a sponsor or creating one for the IAGF, please email info@ithacaaltgiftfair.org.
The IAGF is a model to inspire other communities, and has helped restore the true spirit of giving, let’s hope it can be sustainable.
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This is the latest installment in the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. Devan Rosen is a member of the Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair organizing committee. For more information about Sustainable Tompkins, visit sustainabletompkins.org.