OPINION

It's time for less spending and more giving

TRUE SPIRIT: Christmas is a great time to start looking at how you might be able to help a not-for-profit.
TRUE SPIRIT: Christmas is a great time to start looking at how you might be able to help a not-for-profit.

It used to be so simple - your neighbourhood was your village, that tiny clear patch in the wilderness where people knew your name, your family and your worth. Then cities came along, and things got fraught.

What is a neighbourhood now? And who, now, is our neighbour? Back in the day, Jesus came up with the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the answer is "the person who's willing to pitch in and help those who need it". In our time, that'd be the not-for-profit volunteer.

Back then, mind, they didn't have advertising to speak of. And what advertising does is to encrust everything you can see, and most of the things you can't, with brand names, prices, and transactionalism until the underlying altruistic impulse becomes overlaid and forgotten.

That's why Christmas is generally so unsatisfying. A cheerful feast with the family has been switched in front of our eyes for a pointless spending competition. We're all with greater or less enthusiasm indulging in paroxysms of generally misdirected spending, peaking with the exchange under the tree of items which long experience has told us do not make us happy.

Kicking the cash out of Christmas would be quite an exercise, mind you, and we probably need to warm up to it gradually.

We could begin by trying harder to see the underlying altruism that's around us all the time, making things happen and pushing against dog-eat-dog everyone-for-themselves I'm-all-right-Jack commercialism. The cash nexus doesn't have to be the baseline assumption.

I've just set up Our Community House, a building that houses assorted not-for-profits, and it's remarkable how fast the users are building neighbourhood spirit - bringing in marmalade for the communal dining-room, for example, and collecting breadbag ties for recycling, and using the free library. It's sensitised me to the ways our environments build or displace community spirit.

That's why Christmas is generally so unsatisfying. A cheerful feast with the family has been switched in front of our eyes for a pointless spending competition.

One of our tenants is Wise Employment, which finds jobs for people with disability, very successfully. Each month it places more than 750 people with disability into employment. I didn't know that community groups did that. In the lobby, we drink not-for-profit coffee from The Mission Caters.

Our Community itself, by the way, isn't a not-for-profit - we're a social enterprise, which lets us progress the general good without having to shoehorn our operations into the poorly fitting, archaic formwork of Australian charities law. There are a lot more of us around than there used to be, too.

One of the reasons why community solidarity is hard to pick out from the background signage is that it's nobody's job to compile a list of community-building organisations. If you want to know who's doing what in your local area, where do you look? Your local government website will have a community directory; that's a start. It's not exhaustive, though, and social enterprises still miss out. In this country, charities employ about one worker in every 10, but if you want to see not-for-profits at work in your community you've still got to keep your eyes open.

Now's a good time to start looking, though, what with Christmas and all. The Australian Retailers Association says we'll spend about $7.3 billion online over peak present season, enough to buy nearly half a Gina Rinehart. Do the people you love really want another jokey pair of socks? Let's face it, the word "gift", as in "gift shop", means "something you wouldn't in a pink fit want to own yourself".

Wouldn't your friends and family prefer you to spread the load around a little, to make a gift on their behalf to people who have less and aren't quite as overwhelmed by excess?

Tomorrow, after all, is Giving Tuesday (www.givingtuesday.org.au), one day in each year when we can all come together to give time, money, goods, or voices to celebrate and thank (and reward) Australian not-for-profits. Have a look at www.givenow.com.au for a charity that rings your bells.

Not-for-profits are the glue that holds society together. Money actually isn't everything. Sometimes we need to pull back the curtain and find the feelings it's concealing. Christmas isn't a bad place to start.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping the country's 600,000 not-for-profits.