As businesses roll into the early planning phases of the holiday gift-giving season and the challenges of "who gets what and why" -- which I call the year-end swag and bonus sweepstakes -- they're also struggling mightily with largely futile attempts to beg, bribe, or bully their employees to return full time to the office. Whether it's employee care packages that demonstrate your concern, or costly client Christmas presents, where you're going through the annual motions of sending impersonal products that are much more about show than sentiment, the basic concerns are largely just two different sides of the same dilemma. Namely: credibility, integrity, authenticity, and purpose.

Frankly, no one's fooled these days, and most companies aren't even coming close to getting much of anything right when it comes to swag. We all know in our hearts that we're about to go for another expensive, wasteful, and utterly inauthentic carousel ride and waste millions giving or sending "stuff" that, if truth be known, no one needs or cares about but may have come to expect through the constant stream of commercial manipulation and media that we're subjected to.

Begging or bribing your employees to return is a fool's effort. They need to have a sense of purpose, a belief that the company stands for something worthwhile and important, and that their efforts can make a difference to more than themselves. Life's greatest gift is the opportunity to work hard at work worth doing. Wine or whiskey, breakfast buffets, and beer blasts are all fine, but not a solid reason to come back to the office. Companies -- even in their "welcome back" gestures -- need to be sending the correct message. Swag and sweets and sweatshirts aren't gonna get it done.

It's the same exact situation with family and customer matters. In case it's not abundantly clear, assembly-line gifts that you grabbed at the last moment still can't replace time you didn't spend with your kids, the calls and visits you didn't make to distant family or friends, or occasions, deadlines, and commitments you missed. Never has worked, never will. Rings and jewels aren't gifts, but apologies for gifts. 

You can't even call any of these one-sided transactions -- they're actually no-sided -- because other than the slight reassurance that comes from not being left out or forgotten or the relief that flows once the painful and picayune selection process is done, they don't make anyone actually feel good, help others who might have real needs, or represent anything more than the latest examples of wretched excess. We're sending you this expensive bottle of something or buying you tickets to a great show because we can. Or they're evidence of severely impoverished and stunted emotions, in which people think that giving someone a "gift" confers and creates some useful rights, connections, or obligations on the recipients.

But there's actually a simple and straightforward way to do the right thing in the right way -- honestly, sincerely, and authentically -- for your team, your customers, and yourself. You do the right thing for your business by doing right by others. That's the real message that everyone needs to be communicating today and that's where real connection, interest, and empathy is created. This kind of considered and ethical action is especially essential in these terribly troubled economic times, where sending around egotistical gewgaws, fancy foods, or expensive whatevers is the worst kind of insensitive and meaningless message to share. This is not the time to show off or stand out; it's the time to pitch in, throw down, and make real contributions to what's going on all around you.  

Five years ago, I was introduced to an amazing Chicago-based company founded by a former Peace Corps volunteer called Packed With Purpose, which since 2017 has been creating care packages and corporate gifts that combine great goodies with social good. All of the gift products are sourced from more than 140 purpose-driven organizations that touch and positively impact more than 750,000 lives across 33 states and 16 countries. From preserving the environment, to investing in women- and diverse-owned businesses, to employing adults with barriers to entry, these gifts transform futures and communities. The enthusiasm, commitment, and impact of the people involved in curating, assembling, and shipping every package is clear, compelling, and contagious. It reminds me of the Flowers for Dreams team that I wrote about a while ago. 

In a time where the efforts, overhead, and actual results of some of the nation's largest charities are somewhat unclear, thinly and broadly disbursed, and gray at best, it's especially important and encouraging to be able to see, share with others, and document the videos, success stories, and touching testimonials of dozens of participants on a direct and local level. Company team members, customers, and clients can understand, appreciate, and connect with the concrete results and see exactly how the businesses they're a part of are making an actual and substantial difference in the lives of others. It's an opportunity to convert a mechanical and empty annual act into a memorable and meaningful activity at no extra or incremental cost but with an exponentially more material value.

The past is history, the future's a mystery, and today is a gift -- that's why they call it the present. And today's the time to make a simple and powerful change in the way you do business that can have long-lasting meaning and value for you, your family and friends, and your company as well. Make no mistake -- people who know notice. The true excellence of a gift lies in its purpose and appropriateness rather than in its cost. Make all of yours matter.