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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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    Last Updated on January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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