Rethink the Season of Giving

Next Thursday, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other charities across the US will be fully staffed with smiling-faced, happy volunteers eagerly doling out food and other assistance to those whose need is greatest. Families across the country will come together in the spirit of giving, and will return home beaming with pride and contentment, knowing deep in their hearts that they have made a difference. It’s the finest side of American culture, celebrating our own thankfulness by trying to give the less fortunate something to be thankful about.

Next Friday, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other charities across the US will be understaffed, undersupplied, and underfunded, their staff working tirelessly and selflessly to provide for the basic needs of their constituents. People will go hungry, uncared for, and unsheltered. And the volunteers of Thanksgiving Day will beam with pride and contentment, knowing deep in their hearts that they have made a difference.

I love the next 6 weeks, the holiday season between now and the start of the new year. I’m a Jew, and an atheist one at that, but still: the Christmas season has a deep resonance for me. (Don’t get me started on Hannukah – it’s a second-string holiday trying desperately to be Christmas, a pleasant enough  Jewish idea gussied up in Christian clothing.) Despite the consumerism and the mall crowds and the annual vaguely anti-Semitic war on “Happy Holidays”, I think the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season really brings out the best in people.

But I think too that it leads us astray. In fact, I think it’s all too easy to get so caught up in the good feelings of the season that we lose sight of the point: giving is not about good feelings! The fact that our charity is seasonal should be a source of shame, not pride. I’m not talking about donating money here – that’s a fine thing to do, but it’s on a whole other level. I’m talking about real, person-to-person giving, about really reaching out and helping our fellow human beings, about enriching others’ lives without worrying about enriching our own.

By all means, give this holiday season. Volunteer, drop toys in the Toys for Tots bins, throw change in the Salvation Army Santa’s kettle. But keep these points in mind, too:

1. People need your help year-round.

Two years ago, I wrote a post here that suggested having your kids pick from their old toys things they want to give to the less fortunate kids who won’t have anything or Christmas. Turns out, I was wrong about that. Not about the spirit of it, but about the timing. As Sophie wrote in the comments,

As someone who works in a homeless shelter, I can tell you that agencies such as ours are FLOODED with donations in November and December. Last year enough brand new toys/games/electronics were donated for our agency to have given 20-25 gifts to EACH of our children under under 18. But homeless children do not need so many toys – for one thing, where on earth would they store them? They do URGENTLY need warm clothes, shoes, and school supplies – best supplied in the form of Walmart gift cards, to give their homeless parents the dignity of purchasing their own gifts for their own children.

Turns out, the toy drives your local organizations carry out are pretty successful. In December. When May comes around, though, shelters have little on hand to give out. Sick kids on hospitals, children in battered women’s shelters who have fled their homes in the middle of the night, and others might like a toy or two, but nobody’s donating in the middle of the year – and most non-profits can’t afford to store their December bounty year-round.

The same goes for other forms of volunteering – there are homeless, disabled, ill, poor, and otherwise hurting people who need help year-round. Maybe your season of giving could be Labor Day, Memorial Day, Arbor Day, May Day, or just Some Random Day, when your help is really needed.

2. The recipients of charity are people with feelings, value, and dignity.

When I was in college, I was the assistant manager of a thrift store in San Diego. One of my duties was to accept donations at the rear of the store. I can’t tell you how many times people pulled up, popped their trunk, and proceeded to basically clean their trunks into our donation bins. Torn clothes, oily rags, half-bottles of motor oil, torn magazines, and other refuse were common “donations”, none of which we could use or even accept – it had to go straight into the dumpster. But here’s the thing: if I objected that I could not accept their donations (seriously, a lot of that stuff is actually considered toxic waste under the law and had no business even being on the premises!) I was berated – these people, see, had given out of the goodness of their hearts these wondrous gifts, and who was I to suggest that the poor were too good for their gifts?

This is backhanded charity – it’s like stabbing someone and expecting them to thank you for the knife. Poor people don’t need the dregs of your life, whether in the form of your material cast-offs or your time, emotion, and advice. Being poor means lacking resources, not lacking humanity – if you can’t connect with the people you aim to serve, as people, then nobody is the better for your alleged charity.

3. Consider the gift of autonomy.

Notice Sophie’s advice above about giving gift cards and allowing poor people the dignity to purchase the things they need. One of the resources most lacking for impoverished people is autonomy. The greatest hardship of poverty is the way it limits you – often in ways that create greater poverty, like the way stores in poor neighborhoods often charge higher prices than stores in better-off neighborhood, because the poor often lack the transportation options to make meaningful choices about where they shop.

Think about the way you volunteer of give charity – is there a way you could increase people’s abilities to make their own choices, to follow their own paths, to develop their own abilities? If not, maybe you should think about choosing a different form of assistance.

4. Only connect.

Remember that charity is about people, not problems. You may have plenty of ideas about why people are in whatever fix they’re in, and you may feel you know what’s best for them even when they don’t. But frankly, you don’t. If you’re in a position to help, you most likely have no idea what the people you’re helping are going through. Even if you were yourself once in their position, what worked for you might not work for others – don’t forget how big a role luck and circumstances can play.

Too often, people in a position to help hold themselves apart from the people they hope to assist. And no wonder – for the once-a-year volunteer, there is little time to get to know anyone, let alone really understand what their lives are like. If you can, make a long-term commitment and open yourself up to the lives of the people your charity is aimed at. Get to know people face-to-face, as friends and colleagues and equals.

5. Forget you.

Last but most important, remember, it’s not about you. Yes, it feels good to give, and there’s no point in feeling guilty about that, but don’t do it because it makes you feel good, or because you earn points towards a merit badge or college credit, or because it’s part of your organization’s charter, or for whatever other way that charity benefits you. Do it because you must, because being a giving person is right.

The Muslims have the better of it on this one: giving is not just a mitzvah (the fulfilling of a Biblical commandment in the Jewish faith) or a Good Work, it’s one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the central defining features of Muslim identity. It’s not just something Muslims do, but something they are.

We can all learn from that. Find a way to give not just of your wealth – and don’t let the lack of wealth keep you from giving – but of your talents, skills, knowledge, and self. Make giving part of who you are, not just a thing you do.

And this year, instead of giving during the season of giving and then returning to your “normal life” when you pack away the tree and lights, let the holidays be a starting point to a life of year-round giving.

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