The Christmas Bonus

The Christmas Bonus

I’ve had a hard time this year deciding how Vickery Trading will handle Christmas gifts for our Associates. I feel the constant tension of seeing need and wanting to help, but also remembering that it is my job to empower, not create dependency. It’s a fine line and I haven’t learned the perfect balance just yet. I’m not sure I ever will. When you work in empowerment, sometimes your gut is your best guess.

The 2016 holiday season was our first at Vickery Trading. We were new and excited and people were excited for us. A small company in Dallas adopted us and each Associate filled out a wish list for their families. The lists were fulfilled (and then some) by groups of 3-4 employees from that office. It was like heaven showed up at the homes of our Associates that year and they were so grateful!! They were happy, the company was happy, I was happy. Perfect, right?!

Not so fast. After the New Year, I started reading Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton. It talks about the American approach to charity  and its negative effects on its beneficiaries. (Disclaimer: This is a convicting read. If you wear your heart on your sleeve, you might cry. Also – while this book is written specifically about the American Christian church’s handling of charity, it is the best treatment of poverty alleviation and empowerment I have read to date.) In it, he lays out the cycle of dependency. It goes like this:

Give once and you elicit appreciation;

Give twice and you create anticipation;

Give three times and you create expectation;

Give four times and it becomes entitlement;

Give five times and you establish dependency (Lupton in Toxic Charity, p. 130).

The book radically changed my perspective as a donor, but I also filed much of the information away to inform our model at Vickery Trading.

Fast forward to VTC Holidays 2.0 (2017). Around the beginning of November, the ladies asked me, “Who’s going to adopt us this year for Christmas?!” I got a text from one of my Associate’s children saying, “When will we get our Christmas wish lists? I have some things I want to put on it.”

UH-OH.

I was watching the pages of Toxic Charity play out right there on my iPhone. Except they all but skipped anticipation and went straight to expectation. Now, careful before you go slapping a judgment of ungratefulness on our Associates. They were incredibly grateful. This is actually a problem that WE created. Keep in mind that most refugees (VTC Associates included) are from countries that don’t even celebrate Christmas. They had no expectation or even knowledge of American holiday giving until we showed them. They also didn’t know that it’s not considered kosher to expect this kind of treatment every year. After all, it’s all they’ve known since they showed up. But I realized we were setting a precedent that 1) we might not be able to sustain through the years 2) set an unrealistic expectation for their children of what Christmas would be like for them and 3) undermined a basic principle of empowerment that trains people to live within their means.

In response to this, we changed our approach in 2017 and published a series of gift lists that would meet the needs of the ladies in their every day lives, mostly home goods, including laundry baskets, detergent, paper towels, kitchen supplies, etc. We handed each woman a big basket of things they “needed” for their homes (most of which they were surviving without just fine, by the way) and they were so grateful! All of our followers were excited to help, the ladies got a shorter grocery list and I accomplished my goal of helping them with real needs. Better, right?!

Not quite. There was still a catch in my gut. Is Christmas time really the time to remind someone of their poverty by giving them things like dish soap? Isn’t Christmas supposed to be fun? A time when we get things we wouldn’t normally get? (Nevermind the fact that none of the above is correct…Christmas is about celebrating God’s Son coming to earth as a child to be our Savior. But we tend to forget that in the midst of the gifts and giving hype).

I had the VTC Board read Toxic Charity this fall and how we handle Christmas is one of the areas we identified as a weakness in our pursuit of empowerment. I wrestled with this for DAYS. I wanted to do the right thing. I wanted to help our Associates. I wanted to involve our donors. I wanted it to celebrate the season of giving and be a reward for hard work. I wanted to empower and absolutely didn’t want to create dependency or false expectations. I was so worried about doing the wrong thing, that I froze and didn’t want to do anything! I was processing through this one night with my best sidekick and cheerleader (aka Brad the Super Hubs) and he said a bunch of great and insightful stuff, but the one thing that stuck with me was, “Babe, at the end of the day, they’re your employees. It’s not your job to provide all of their needs.”

(Lightbulb!!)

I thought back to my days working in corporate America. At Christmas, we would do a nice lunch or dinner, sometimes an event, and they would give me a Christmas bonus, either in a check or gift card. Sure, many of us exchanged pumpkin bread or wine, but it never required a huge wish list with sponsors. Because they were already doing their part. They were paying me for work so that I could provide for the needs of my family.

Translate that to VTC and that’s what we do. We pay women for their work and they use that money to provide for the needs of their families. But what about generosity? What about the “social” in our social business? Fair point. But not once have I heard a woman say she wants help getting dish soap or toilet paper. She has said she needs someone to help her learn English. Not once has one of my ladies mentioned buying something as a victory on our Victory Wall (except a house…that’s a big victory for ANYONE). But they have mentioned making an American friend as a victory. Their deepest desire is not for stuff. It’s to feel normal. Included. A part of life in America. Not the outcast, the poor person, the charity case or the angel on the tree.

I realized that Vickery Trading is in a unique position to bring dignity to our Associates in a way that most charities don’t have the ability to. We can treat them like the most normal employees in the world. We can give them a Christmas bonus. So that’s what we’re doing this year. Simple. No logistical coordination of a list or a sponsor. No setting false expectations. We’re taking a trip to the Dallas Arboretum together as an employee day out and then we’ll hand them a Christmas Bonus.

Is that a total let down to you? Ya know, I realize that it might be. I realize that it might be part of your holiday tradition to help your kids learn how to give to those who are less fortunate. It’s certainly been a part of our parenting. And you can absolutely still give. But VTC won’t facilitate that in a way that costs our Associates their dignity.

While we don’t have a wish list this year, we do still have a donate button and we absolutely accept gifts in that way. 🙂 But honestly, do you know what I consider the best gift you could possibly give us? A referral. Tell your friends. Tell your co-workers. Tell them about our brave women and their stories of hope. Tell them how hard they work to find their place in America and thrive. Tell them how hard they work to make quality clothing. Help us grow this business so big that there’s not a refugee in Dallas without access to job and English training. That would make a more lasting impact than any fulfilled wish list ever will.

Praying your Christmas is filled with rest and joy. On behalf of the entire VTC team – Merry Christmas!!