Whether it’s selection boxes at Christmas, chocolate eggs at Easter, gifts at the end-of-summer-term outing, or ‘I turned up’ badges – a custom has grown up in the last decade or so in some units of giving not just Christmas cards, but also actual presents to all the girls. Sometimes the Leaders buy them out of their own pocket, sometimes the unit bank funds are raided. And I am referring to direct gifts – not crafts which the girls have made for themselves, nor the prizes from the party games the girls competed in, nor badges for challenges tackled or for skills learned as part of an activity. Gifts for having been a member of the unit at that time of year, or for having turned up to a unit activity - and for no other reason. The unnecessary optional extras. Nice, quite possibly, but 100% optional.
What could be controversial about such a nice gesture?
First up is the funding question. As volunteers, we should not be out of pocket for our Guiding hobby – so no expenses should ever come out of our own pockets, and the unit accounts should reflect the full cost of running the unit with all the expenses included (however minor). So legally, anything you donate to the unit must be listed in the unit accounts as a donation, it should never be ‘off the record’. The other aspect is that you, personally, may currently be in a position to fund gifts to the girls, and you may choose to do so. But if you start such a custom, then you are setting a precedent for the years to come, and an expectation that the girls and their folks will then automatically expect presents every time. What might that mean if your circumstances change, or for whoever succeeds you as unit Leader, whose financial circumstances may be quite different to yours? They may be in the embarrassing position of ‘just managing’ financially, but be in no position to buy unnecessary extras for other people’s children without a second thought. And what if we use the unit funds for presents instead? Well, we are an educational charity, and the unit’s funds are donated (by the parents and potentially by others) specifically to support Guiding’s educational aims. Books and resources for activities are easily justifiable as contributing to those educational aims, as is the hall rent, the games and craft equipment we will use for the unit’s educational activities, minor prizes for competitions used to promote fair play and good sportsmanship amongst the girls, and badges which the girls have earned by learning new and useful skills – yes, all of that can be justified as legitimate expenditure on educational activity. But – would all of the parents be happy for the unit funds they have raised to be spent on things which were purely gifts, issued to all without anything particular or specific done to earn them? Not necessarily. Even if the presents themselves were practical ones.
Next is scale. At what point does a token gesture (something costing less than £1 per head, perhaps twice a year) actually start to add up to quite a bit in terms of amount spent, size of present given, frequency of gifting? Even something which is only £1 – becomes £1 x 24 or more dependent on the size of the unit . . . potentially multiplied by several times per year . . . and starts to become a very significant sum indeed . . .
Then there is expectation. If it becomes a custom that these gifts are given, and the girls start to expect them – then do they continue to actually be a treat or surprise, are they still seen as something special? Or do they risk becoming merely ‘the usual’, something taken for granted, something only noticed if absent (or perhaps not even then)? As you’re handing them over, are the girls thrilled with enthusiasm at what they are getting - or is there just a row of hands held out to receive whatever it happens to be, with few mumbling thanks, and some barely noticing what they are getting at all? Are badges prized if the girls do not have to do anything in particular to earn them – or even aren’t sure what they are for? Or is it only the ones which involved hard work over a period of time before they were earned? Two weeks after getting them, can the girls remember what the badge was for, or what they did to earn it? Did they take care to put it in a safe place, or is it already mislaid or forgotten about?
Of course, then comes the ‘Joneses’ question. If your unit is one of several units in the area, but is known to be ‘the one which gives the presents’ does that attract girls to your unit solely or mainly for that reason, at the expense of other units? Or does it put pressure on other units to find money for presents too, even if that might have to be at the expense of trimming their programmes? We can’t always change what we do solely because of consideration for the neighbouring units, and in many circumstances shouldn’t - but we can pause to give them some thought when reaching decisions , especially if neighbouring units to us are in less well-off areas – we don’t always have to act “The Joneses” - even if we can.
Finally, there are the ‘principle’ questions. One of the key principles of Guiding is ‘thinking of others before ourselves’. So our focus in our unit activities is normally on giving to others, and we were long encouraged to do extra good turns for others at times like Easter and Christmas, in a sense to almost to make up for all the things we would soon be receiving. If our focus is meant to be on encouraging the girls to be putting others and their thoughts/feelings first, and learning the pleasure of giving rather than receiving, does it not smack a bit of “don’t do as I do, do as I say” if it’s regularly ‘presents for ourselves’ time again?