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For some advisors, the choice to send donations over gifts is rooted in conversations around values that the pandemic has stirred up among clients.cerro_photography/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Andrea Andersen, financial advisor at Edward Jones Canada in Calgary, typically spends the last few weeks of each year sending her clients centrepieces and inviting them to private, family-friendly events.

Like many advisors, Ms. Andersen has gotten into the habit of showing clients her appreciation for their business around the holiday season. But this year, she and her colleagues decided to reassess this approach. Instead of buying gifts or hosting parties, Ms. Andersen plans to allocate her budget for client appreciation toward donations to a local food bank.

“In our Christmas cards [to clients], we’re sending a note saying that the budget for all of these client events is being donated to the food bank this year,” she says. “It makes sense for our community; it makes sense for what we’re doing.”

Ms. Andersen is not alone among advisors eschewing traditional holiday gift-giving norms to show her clients appreciation, opting instead for philanthropy as a physically-distanced, pandemic-friendly alternative.

She notes that the choice to send donations over gifts was rooted in conversations around values that the pandemic has stirred up among her client base. Long stretches of economic uncertainty and time spent at home have forced Canadians to mull over what’s important in their lives. Material goods, Ms. Andersen says, just aren’t it.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to clients and they’ve said, ‘Here we are, in our big houses, surrounded by all this stuff that we bought that thought made us happy,’” Ms. Andersen says. “And people are not happy.”

Julia Chung, partner, chief executive officer and senior financial planner at Spring Planning Inc. in Surrey B.C., says her firm is also forgoing its usual greeting cards and gift boxes to send donations to a local homeless shelter on their clients’ behalf this holiday season. It’s a tradition that the firm, which prides itself on values like community and integrity, started last year.

But given tensions over a looming eviction crisis and widespread economic uncertainty, Ms. Chung and her colleagues felt it more than appropriate to carry on the practice. She adds that sending donations in lieu of gifts helps reinforce Spring Planning’s brand values to its client base.

“One of the things we did was really think about the clients that we have and what’s important to that group of people,” Ms. Chung says. “The people who work with us tend to have some pretty shared values.”

But while advisors like Ms. Andersen and Ms. Chung have made charitable donations the focus of their holiday client-appreciation efforts, others may choose to go a more traditional route.

For those who do, Ms. Chung says the key to any good client-appreciation gift is personalization. Paying attention to your clients’ interests and desires throughout the year will make it easier to find something that works for them come holiday season.

That’s especially important amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when restrictions around physical proximity limit advisors’ gift-giving options.

“Make sure that it doesn’t look slapdash,” Ms. Chung says. “You generally need to pay attention to, ‘What’s important to the group of people I work with?’”

George Hartman, president and CEO of Market Logics Inc. in Toronto, says that advisors with large books of business should segment their client bases and target holiday client appreciation gifts or virtual events toward narrower categories.

“You might have 10 clients, for example, who are business owners, so you can do something that would appeal to business owners,” Mr. Hartman says. “You can have 10 clients who have an interest in wine or cooking, and so you might have a chef or a wine connoisseur on [a video call] to talk about those sorts of things.”

He adds that advisors with long-held end-of-year traditions shouldn’t feel obliged to reinvent the wheel. He’s coached advisors who are hosting catered videoconferencing dinner parties in which each attendee receives their food pre-prepared from a restaurant before logging in to a call at the same time in lieu of traditional restaurant outings this year.

Opting for a pandemic-friendly equivalent to an old favourite is a good way to establish consistency in a time of uncertainty. For many clients, the coming holiday season will likely be one that requires breaking tradition in favour of maintaining physical distancing: families may be prohibited from gathering in person and gifts may not be on the table for those facing difficult times. While so much of life feels unstable, keeping up with tradition could mean more to clients than ever.

“In times like these, when people are more prone to periods of anxiety and perhaps even an amount of depression, reaching out to them in a non-business way will be much appreciated,” Mr. Hartman says.

Above all, he encourages advisors to look at the upcoming holiday as “an opportunity to be creative, do something that stands out, and is more meaningful.”