This Holiday Season, Rethink Your Charity

Charity and volunteering

Let’s Spread Some of That ‘Goodwill to Men’ Throughout the Year

Tis the season for food banks and soup kitchens to be flooded with donations and volunteers, which will inevitably dry up during the rest of the year. In some places, volunteer slots around Thanksgiving and Christmas book up months in advance, as if they were seats at a fancy new restaurant.

But that energy inevitably wanes in the new year, when taking care of each other is no longer topical, and most of us return to business as usual, narrowly focused on our busy lives.

Why Is Charity So Popular Around the Holidays?

Serving in soup kitchens, organizing toy drives, and bringing homeless people in from the cold are all scenes played out in any Hallmark-style holiday movie. But what about this time of year inspires people to open their hearts, homes, and wallets? There are a few common answers.

Families who have made a tradition of volunteering around the holidays often describe their efforts as a way to spread holiday cheer, give themselves an emotional boost, and teach their children the value of giving back.

I understand the thought process that the holidays are a time to be happy, and so volunteering can help to ensure that everyone has a holiday that is as happy as possible. Still, the other reasons don’t seem that time-sensitive.

If you want to teach your kids the importance of giving back or give yourself a feel-good boost, you can do it at any time of year.

The Limits of Holiday Charity

Most people who participate in holiday charity have at least some understanding that it’s a fleeting thing.

The usual efforts and programs that ramp up at the end of the year aren’t designed to change people’s lives- only to give them a day of happiness. While that’s not a useless goal, the surge of humanitarian interest that the holidays bring out in people could be put to better use if they were harnessed slightly differently.

Many holiday charity programs are narrowly focused on one single symptom of a much larger issue.

For example, we want kids to have an enjoyable holiday experience, so we focus on gathering toys for tots. But if we had looked a little farther upstream, we might have seen that gathering up rent for moms would have allowed these families the breathing room to buy their own toys customized to the interests of each tot.

The whole thing has the vibe of Robin Williams’ character in Mrs. Doubtfire. This “fun” dad wants to swoop in and take credit for the exciting, flashy party. Still, he is never willing to participate in the less glamorous, behind-the-scenes activities of daily living that sustain his family and make those fun moments possible.

When we engage in these narrowly focused, holiday-specific types of charity, we’re not making lasting change. We’re just playing Santa Claus.

Give A Gift That Keeps on Giving

To maximize your impact, look beyond the traditional opportunities to give back this season. You could always book another time if your local soup kitchen is full of volunteers for the rest of the year. Better yet- a reoccurring appointment.

Training volunteers takes time and effort, so returning repeatedly makes that investment all the more worth it for the organization you’re trying to support. The summer is often a slow time as many regular volunteers travel and children are out of school and need more support and supplemental meals.

Of course, these are just general trends. You should always check in with your local organization of choice to see their needs.

Consider offering some of your other skills to support the organization of your choice. Whatever you do as a day job or hobby can often be harnessed to help out. Web design, photography, accounting, event planning, and more can all be invaluable to a charitable organization if they’re used creatively.

Work Yourself Out of a Job

Incorporating activities like serving in a soup kitchen or volunteering at a homeless shelter as part of your annual holiday traditions has a bit of a melancholy ring to it because as much as that’s needed now, there’s always the hope that that need won’t last forever.

Eventually, there will be no homeless and hungry people to serve because everyone will be housed and have their basic needs covered. At least, that’s the hope and future I’m working toward.

To that end, thinking beyond simple charity is helpful. Charitable giving can keep specific beneficiaries of those gifts housed and safe, but it does nothing to disrupt the system that allows people to become homeless in the first place. To do that, we need much more radical changes in how we value both people and property in our society. 

So this holiday season, contact your representatives, advocate for affordable housing in your neighborhoods, seek creative ideas for change, and start the conversation around the dinner table.

Change can start with a simple question: “Isn’t it weird how there’s a minimum salary you need to make just to have a place to live?” Because, frankly, it is weird. It’s as weird as needing a minimum credit score to be able to renew your subscription to breathing. But somehow, we’ve just gotten used to it.

The more you think about it, the more the premise breaks down. And the more people start to wake up to just how not-normal our current system is, the more we’ll be able to push for change in these systems that no longer serve us and, really, never have.

Kayla Robbins

Kayla Robbins


Kayla Robbins is a freelance writer who works with big-hearted brands and businesses. When she's not working, she enjoys knitting socks, rolling d20s, and binging episodes of The Great British Bake Off.

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