The Scourge of Holiday Giving
It’s that most (not) wonderful time of the year for some of us.
Enduring screeching holiday “music” in decibels far beyond recommended doses. Walking through toy traps — designed to lure the reluctant into purchasing trendy crap. Smelling fake pine scents wafting through the aisles. Averting our eyes to avoid garish, cheesy puffed-up or deflated holiday decorations. And avoiding the “joy of giving” to “the homeless” at this time of good cheer.
Wait! Avoid giving to help homeless people?
I’ll say what lots of well-tempered, discrete, respected providers of care in the world of homelessness would like to say:
This isn’t the most wonderful time of the year.
Sure, it’s the time when nonprofits hope that donors will be generous as the year end tax deadline nears. A good year-end donation spurt increases the odds of getting through the fiscal drought of the first quarter of next year, a time when the reality of holiday shopping sprees, pending tax liabilities and stock market dips temper potential donors.
Amazingly, America has the highest rate of charitable giving per gross domestic product (GDP), 1.44%. This recent Forbes article reminds us:
Giving is in our nature, as a country. As French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville said: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
From my years of running a frantic, crowded shelter, I can attest to a few unspoken realities: holidays like Christmas tend to frazzle staff and traumatize shelter guests. When too many Barbie dolls or GI Joes pile up, tempting the staff to sell them to raise money for utility bills, that’s a sure sign of distorted values.
Imagine being the mom ushering her kids past storefronts decked out in gaudy decorations, agreeing that “there’s no place like home for the holidays,” and every day. Or a depressed, demoralized adult reflecting on inescapable reminders of joyous family gatherings, far removed from their current dilemma.
I witness parents of families that have (barely) escaped homelessness lament their inability to provide an even basic holiday experience for their kids. Some relent and spend what should be set aside for the barrage of bills that keep the family in housing, yielding to the well-funded advertising pressure found around every corner, cyber and real. As one mom, having just been upended by an unscrupulous debt collector, succinctly put it: And the Christmas for fuck’n ONCE in Hanna’s childhood I worked to make awesome for her.
Millionaires and billionaires may succumb to holiday pressure and toss a few bucks toward blatantly obvious causes that scream desperation. Sure, their donations are appreciated, and necessary, but what galls some of us is the self-aggrandizing that seems to accompany many of these big checks.
When running the shelter, I’d get questions about what could a generous, well-intentioned person do to share holiday spirit. My reply would include:
- Pick a different, less commercialized holiday and find a way to modestly celebrate it with our shelter guests.
- Ask your family and friends to forgo the gift brigade and contribute to an effective nonprofit instead.
- Spend the time necessary to learn about legislative issues affecting homeless persons and communicate the concerns/needs/solutions with your elected official. (Yeah, I get that this is getting harder with each passing politically dysfunctional day.)
Today I’d add another suggestion:
- Give copies of The Charlie Book: 60 Ways to Help Homeless Kids to those on your gift list. (This book not only gives a plethora of suggestions, but it supports my frugal nonprofit, HEAR US Inc.)
We may not be able to wrest control of the environment, poverty, racism or violence issues from the haters, but we can make lives better for those in our communities — year round.