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Rethink the Season of Giving

Rethink the Season of Giving

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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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