Shop long and prosper, or make it sew! This article is all about how to find (or run!) the geeky gift exchange of your dreams.
I approach gift giving with the same geeky energy I put into my fandoms. That’s probably why I enjoy the experience of joining a gift exchange so much – especially if it has a geeky theme! I like to examine someone’s wishlist and figure out the perfect gift with the meticulous attention to detail of designing a new fan creation. It’s extremely rewarding to be able to connect with people who have similar interests and send them cool things they’re sure to love.
And of course, it’s also exciting to be on the receiving end of all of the above!
Before going into specifics of how to find and/or run your ideal geeky gift exchange, let’s look at some overall concepts that make them good (or bad).
Things to look for in a good geeky gift exchange
These are all great traits to consider, whether you’re looking for a good geeky gift exchange or running one yourself:
- Participants are limited to a group of friends or a community. This adds extra motivation for people to send an especially thoughtful gift or at least be less likely to flake. It also makes everyone’s gifts more meaningful- even if you don’t personally know your gift giver or gift recipient, you still know you have something in common with them. Organizers are generally happier, too, because anyone who encounters a problem is more likely to be kind and understanding in how they ask for help.
- No-shows are minimized and mitigated. Nobody wants to give a gift and not get one in return. How do organizers keep everyone accountable? Do they say things to emphasize the importance of not leaving your recipient without a gift? Do they ask that all gifters check in with the organizers in some way? Providing a tracking number for example? Do they arrange for a source of extra gifts for recipients whose gifter has gone AWOL? (Perhaps through a public or private recruitment for volunteer “pinch gifters”?) Optional: Are participants mixed and matched instead of paired off 1:1? This ensures that even if a participant has a negative experience with their gifter, they can still feel positive about making their own gift recipient happy.
- Handmade items are welcomed. We’re starting to drift into personal opinion territory with this one, but I still believe the best geeky gift exchanges will allows crafts. Sometimes official merch isn’t enough to fill our fandom needs (as our editor-in-chief discovered in 2019 when she was unable to find any official Baby Yoda items to put on her workplace Secret Santa list)!
- All gifts are limited to a specific theme. All my favorite gift exchanges have had themes. Books! Favorite fandoms! It’s fun to share underrated items related to your special interest with someone who will appreciate them. It’s more fun to anticipate a gift for a hobby or interest you might otherwise not get gifts for very often. I would think this extra layer of community and opportunity to share recommendations would also make people even more likely to follow through with sending their gifts. It also might draw more people to participate even if they’ve joined a bunch of generic gift exchanges already.
- Wishlists contain interests and not specific items. This may be the biggest personal opinion of all. I vastly prefer the opportunity to exchange rare “hidden gem” favorites with people who have similar interests instead of limiting everyone to gifts that recipients have already selected.
- It’s not a pyramid scheme. This one definitely isn’t just my personal opinion! In a fair gift exchange, everyone signs up at the same time and receives the same amount of gifts as they give.
That brings us to a few things you should look out for…
Pyramid Schemes (Chewie, I’ve got a bad feeling about this!)
Not all gift exchanges are organized with experience and good faith. Some run on the same concepts as pyramid schemes and will leave most recipients disappointed and giftless. An especially notorious one, The Secret Sister Exchange, has been making the rounds since 2015. If you see it, consider sharing this article so people can read the following tips and then find fair alternatives.
Pyramid schemes are pretty easy to spot. A couple major red flags are:
- The gift exchange has already started when you sign up.
- You’re asked to give only one gift, but multiple people will each give you a gift in return.
- You will only get gifts if you can get new people to sign up for the exchange (your gifts come from people below you).
Eventually all gift exchanges set up like this are doomed to fall apart. Lucky participants might get one gift, but most won’t get any gifts at all.
Look at this graph from investor.gov. If each gift giver is promised six gifts in return, then it would only take 13 iterations of signups before even the entire world population isn’t enough to keep the exchange running. If you want multiple gifts, then the best thing to do is join multiple gift exchanges or at least ask an organizer if you can put your name in multiple times.
So… where are all these exchanges, anyway? Glad you asked.
How to find a geeky gift exchange
The best gift exchange for the average geek to wander into is the Secret Santa run by Reddit Gifts. It’s extremely well-managed, and if you’re a thoughtful geek excited to send someone the perfect gift, you’re in excellent company. I’ve never participated, but after hearing so much about it while researching this article, I decided to jump right in this year, and I’m excited!
Here are some facts I gathered from the Reddit Gifts site and FAQ:
- The exchange has a dedicated subreddit, but most of the infrastructure is hosted on the separate Reddit Gifts website. To sign up, you’ll need to create an account with them and then link your reddit account. (If you don’t have a reddit account, you’ll have to create one.)
- The signup deadline for 2020 is Monday, December 7.
- The three exchanges they’re running for the 2020 holiday season are for gifts, cards, and ornaments.
- The organizers have built in a lot of accountability and contingencies, so chances are low that you’ll be stuck without a gift.
- Gifters are encouraged to spend at least $20 and to put a lot of thought into making the gift really special.
I asked my friends to share any advice and tips they had for someone (like me!) who is thinking of diving in for the first time:
- Have fun! It’s not a contest of who can give the biggest gift!
- Go into it mostly just expecting to get someone else a really thoughtful gift instead of forming expectations of what you might or might not get. Giving is so rewarding already, and they definitely incentivize it even more. Gift recipients are encouraged to post photos, reactions, and Thank Yous to their gift gallery, so you’ll probably even get to see how much your gift was appreciated. (Browse past gallery posts from all exchanges here!)
- The amount of apparent thought and care that your Secret Santa puts into your gift will vary from year to year, and that’s part of the mystery. Last year one friend’s Santa paid for a necessary pet surgery, but another friend was unlucky enough to be ghosted by both her regular Santa and her backup Santa. I’m expecting that yours and mine will most likely be somewhere in between!
- There are a lot more ways to get involved if you enjoy your experience, and it’s easy to get addicted! The site hosts a lot of themed exchanges throughout the year, and almost all of themes are geek/fandom related. You’re sure to find something that matches your interests.
- You’ll probably notice the points system. The purpose of that is to pair people who have done similar numbers of exchanges. You’ll probably encounter wording that discusses how many points an exchange will “cost,” but don’t worry. That doesn’t mean those points are taken away.
Here’s what signing up was like for me: I made my account and linked it to reddit. The email took a few minutes to appear in my inbox, but luckily Gmail didn’t mark it as spam or shunt it to a different inbox section. Once I was done with that, I was able to fill out my Secret Santa application, and now I’m ready to add my own piece of advice: Don’t sweat the application process! The form is very intuitive and open ended, and you have all the space you need to share information with your Secret Santa in a way that works best for you. My favorite question is “how has your year been?”
The reason I like that question so much is because as I was responding, I realized that it prompted so many thoughts that would be useful to someone giving me a gift. Both recent triumphs and overlooked needs were coming to mind, and there are certainly a few small simple things involved that would let me enjoy the good parts of life a little more or feel the bad parts of life a little less. I hope the person I get matched with is able to share something similar, because it’s a very easy way to find something small that would make a meaningful impact in their life.
Looking for more geeky gift exchanges? Try these too:
- Swapbot has a lot in common with the reddit exchange, except it’s decentralized. You can search for swaps and even host one yourself. Perfect for narrowing gift exchange topics down to your geeky favorites!
- #YayAdvent. The 2020 deadline has come and gone, but if you want to mark your calendar for next year (or if you’re reading this in the future) it comes highly recommended by one of my friends in the UK. You’ll be matched 1-1 with another person, and then the two of you will send each other 24-25 very small gifts to be opened every day of December until Christmas.
- YOUR favorite online space!
- Write a post asking if any of your friends are running gift exchanges.
- Browse a few of your favorite communities that you haven’t checked in on in a while. Maybe they’re already running gift exchanges, and the social media algorithms just haven’t shown you the post yet. If the deadline has passed, try asking if they’d consider letting you join late, even if it’s just a “b-squad” of stragglers, but also assure them you’ll understand if they have their hands full.
- Pick a few of your favorite online communities that aren’t already running a gift exchange, and suggest it to the admins. I’m currently seeing people doing this, and sometimes the response is genuine interest and responses along the lines of “We never thought about doing this, but it’s a great idea, and we’d like to try!” Either way, your suggestion might make their day by telling them you consider their community to be special enough to do a gift exchange! Definitely mention how awesome they are.
How to run a geeky gift exchange
If you have the time and effort, I always tell people that the best way to evoke something truly as awesome as you envision is to volunteer to help make it happen (or even completely do it yourself). This is definitely the case for amazing geeky gift exchanges.
This section wouldn’t be possible without the advice of some awesome people who have run my favorite geeky gift exchanges, including the admin teams of two Facebook groups:
- Garak’s Craftiers: an amazing Facebook “gronp” for crafty Star Trek fans who like gay space communism
- Pride Squadron: the informal group for LGBTQIA+ members of the major Star Wars charity costume clubs
I also spoke with a friend who runs a gift exchange based on the Icelandic tradition of gifting books on Christmas Eve.
Because of that, my first piece of advice is to look at how other exchanges are run, especially the reddit exchange. Ask your own friends for advice, too. When I asked other staff members, I learned that The Geekiary’s very own Admin Khai runs her own gift exchanges every year, and she also had a lot of good advice!
On to the practical advice! One of the first steps of planning should be logistics. How will you gather people’s information, calculate matches, and then share that information with each gifter in a reasonably safe manner?
- The most popular gift exchange website is Elfster. Their infrastructure is based around wedding registry-style wishlists of specific items. There’s even pinterest-like plugin where you can be browsing the internet, see something cool, and automatically add it to your Elfster list.
- Drawnames is good if you just want to use the name drawing infrastructure and keep the focus on people sharing wishlists of generic interests.
- Finally, don’t overlook the much simpler method of gathering data with Google Forms and exporting results to compare in a Google Sheets document manually. There’s no substitute for a masterful organizer comparing a wall of sticky notes until “the person who makes their own pottery” is assigned to “the person who collects handmade mugs” and so on!
More things to consider as you’re designing your geeky gift exchange:
Budget- A suggested minimum price is important, so people manage expectations. What can your participants afford, including shipping? Expensive swaps can be more exciting, but the cheaper the budget, the more people can participate. (Maybe they have low budgets, maybe they’re just already in a lot of exchanges.)
If cost is a major concern with your participants, consider exchanging cards or things you can put in an envelope instead of a package. Also think about exchanging things you can send online, like fanfic, digital art, playlists, and so on.
Type of gift- Handmade, purchased, or a mix? There’s a wonderful trend I’m seeing of gift exchange organizers encouraging people to support indie artists and small businesses if they go the route of the purchased gift. Handmade gifts of any kind are also a great way to ensure your partner doesn’t already have what you send.
Location- Are participants willing to mail something overseas? Are you able to handle contingencies such as noticing only one participant in a given country, and arranging for them to receive a digitally-sent gift instead?
Progress Tracking- Do yourself a favor and set up a tracking sheet for your exchange. It should include a list of everyone in your exchange, their email address, their address, who they’re sending to, whether they’ve sent their gift, and whether they’ve received their gift. Google Sheets or Excel is a super easy and free way to keep this organized.
Allergies, Dislikes, and Don’t Needs- Give people opportunities and prompts to share things that would NOT work as a gift. Maybe they want to ask for new snacks and candy to try, but they have a food allergy. Maybe they can’t help but associate a popular fandom with a distressing past experience. Maybe they love Avatar the Last Airbender but already have more Appa plushies than they know what to do with. Whatever it is, make respecting a partner’s “No Thank Yous” a hard rule in your exchange.
Dispute resolution- This is an expert deep dive into the “no-show mitigation” item from earlier in the article! Have a plan for how you’re going to settle any conflicts that arise during the exchange. What will you do if someone gets an inappropriate gift (allergens, specific dislikes, obviously doesn’t hit the minimum budget, etc)? What will you do if someone claims they sent a gift but their partner never gets it? What happens if someone says they didn’t get a gift, but another gifter sends you evidence it was received?
The majority of problems can be solved with 2 steps:
- Require people to either send a tracking number or take a picture of their hands mailing the present. The second is kind of playful and can be turned into a game: “Post it on social media/ in our group with this tag”.
- When you send out entry forms, ask if anyone is willing to be a “pinch gifter” to send extra gifts to people whose partners drop out. You’d be surprised how many people will jump on that. Geeks like to give geeky presents!
Reminders- Send out reminders and requests to let you know when a gift is received more often than you think you need to. Halfway to your deadline should be the first, then maybe halfway between then and your deadline, and another a day or two before the last chance to mail and make the deadline. Send another on the deadline asking everyone to let you know if they didn’t get a gift. Whenever someone tells you they sent or got a present, mark it on your tracker with a date.
Some Final Thoughts…
Here’s the most important thing to keep in mind whether you’re joining or running a geeky gift exchange this year: Done is better than perfect! Remember, you can always answer questions and fine tune things after the fact.
If you’re applying for an exchange, don’t do what I did and miss the deadline because you can’t stop adding details and trying to make it perfect. (I tried the “couldn’t hurt to ask” tip I suggested earlier, and luckily for me, the organizers of the exchange ended up needing more people a week later, so I was able to slip in!)
Questions for the comments section: What are your favorite kinds of geeky gift exchanges? Which ones are you doing this year? What do you look for in a well run gift exchange? What’s the most awesome thing you’ve ever gotten or given in a gift exchange? If you’ve done the reddit gift exchange, what was your experience? We want to know all about it!
Author: Corellon Johnson
Corellon is an engineer, cosplayer, group admin, creative fandom polymath, and chaotic good paladin of Carrie Fisher.
They’ve run over 50 fan panels and con events and can be found starting way too many projects in the Good Omens, Bioware, and Star Wars fandoms.
Newport News, Virginia, USA
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