The Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair the last time it was held in person, in 2019. (Photo provided)

ITHACA, N.Y.—The Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair, held to emphasize the spirit of charity during the holiday season, will return to being an in-person event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on November 20 at the Henry St. John Building gymnasium, but there will be some changes this year, from COVID safety precautions to an earlier start date.

This year, the event, which is usually on the first Saturday in December, will be on November 20, a date that will allow people to buy alternative gifts for Hanukkah, which lasts from Nov. 28 to Dec. 6 this year. Steven Manley, who has been involved in the fair regularly for the past three years, said holding the fair before Thanksgiving was a matter of timing.

“We wanted to identify a space on the calendar where we would be part of the holiday season and part of the giving season but not be overshadowed per se by the other holidays, and all of the dates around them,” Manley said. “Picking a date just before Thanksgiving seemed like a good space in everyone’s calendar.”

Last year, safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair being held entirely online. This year, however, the fair will have a hybrid model, with some organizations being present in person and others accepting donations online, with Zoom rooms to allow them to speak with potential donors. Manley said that some organizations will be participating in person, some will be online and some will do both. 

“We know that everyone has to make their own decisions about their staff availability, their time, their volunteers’ hours, and on top of that, their responsibility to the safety of health and of their staff, and their volunteers who will be present at this space,” Manley said. “I am appreciative of the thought, and the level of mental and emotional responsibility our nonprofits really take for their staff and their volunteers, and trust them to make the best decision for their team and their mission.”

The in-person event will require everyone to wear masks regardless of vaccination status, have sanitizing stations available, and routinely clean ad disinfect shared surfaces. Attending organizations will be limited to one representative, unlike previous years, when representatives came in pairs so one could take over while the other ate lunch.

The Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair was originally a project by Cornell University’s Center for Transformative Action, until the fair disassociated itself from Cornell after 2015’s fair, resulting in no fair being held in 2016.

The fair is no longer an official nonprofit organization, but an event supported by nonprofit leaders in the community. As an event, the fair cannot collect donations; instead, the participating nonprofits collect the donations themselves.

Amber Smith, who is on the organizing team for the fair, said the fair is largely the same as it was since before 2014, so this change is neither good nor bad. 

“Things have to work with the times,” Smith said, “and this was the way that the organization- the event- had to evolve to stay relevant and stay active. So we’ve kind of done what we can to keep a really wonderful thing alive.”

Smith said there were some advantages to participating in the online fair, since it was easier for some donors to donate, while nonprofits would not have to pay a staff member or assign a volunteer to man their table. According to her, in 2019, 22 organizations participated in person, and the fair reported a total of $5,508 in donations. In 2020, 40 organizations participated online, and the 28 that reported their donations received a total of $8,703.

To Manley, one advantage of participating in person is the ability to see other nonprofit organizations and learn about their missions and accomplishments.

“You are doing the work you are doing to support the community, but other groups are doing amazing work as well,” Manley said, “and you have the opportunity to see them and talk to them.”

Despite noting the advantages of holding the event online, Smith said that by holding the fair in person, donors could see and learn about nonprofits they had never heard of before. She said that even people who do not end up donating can still have good conversations with them, fulfilling interpersonal interactions that are largely absent from collecting donations online.

Founded in 2004, the fair was intended to encourage alternatives to material gifts- namely, donations to local nonprofit organizations in the recipients’ name.

“The idea was, generally, that people were getting frustrated with the fact that they were having to go out and buy stuff for friends and family who probably didn’t really need more stuff,” Smith said, “and that money could be better spent by supporting nonprofits in our community who would then use that funding to create change.”

Meaghan Sheehan Rosen, who founded the event, said that while the fair was a new idea when it was first established, online days of giving have become more common since then.

“For the first decade or more, the gift fair was really the only organized event that was happening locally that offered an opportunity to do your holiday shopping while being a part of this community event,” Rosen said.  

“If you find an organization and talk to them about their work, it makes them feel like they’re a part of something, rather than just writing a check and never hearing from them again,” Smith said.

Rosen stressed the importance of relationships between non-profit organizations in the community, as well as the opportunity for them to learn from one another and be reminded of the fact that they are not alone in the community.

“Certainly, money is one thing, and that’s important to keep programs running,” Rosen said, “but that’s not the end-all, be-all, and the relationships and the connections with people throughout community are absolutely essential.”

Rosen was touched when her brother gave her an alternative gift- a donation in her name to change the lock for a person who had experienced domestic violence- and still remembers the emotions she felt upon receiving this gift.

“It was very powerful and I was so moved by it,” Rosen said, “and it meant a lot to me, that my brother had made that choice to make a donation to support this organization that was doing such important work. I didn’t need a physical thing from him, but to have received a card with a description of the organization and the work they were doing was a really meaningful thing.”

Manley described the practice of giving alternative gifts as an excellent way to give gifts to “the person who has everything” that will not take up space.

“It’s just a different way of showing people that you’re thinking about them,” Manley said.

Rosen considers the gift fair as a unique and special part of Ithaca.

“This has happened only because of individuals in our community who have decided that this is important enough for them to volunteer their time and to the benefit of all of the dozens and dozens of local organizations that have had the opportunity to participate,” Rosen said. “It makes me happy to be part of this community where something like this can be sustained for so long.”