We've all seen them, on Facebook, on political ads, people doling food at a soup kitchen, wrapping presents for kids. People say "it's the holidays and I want to give back." It's a nice sentiment, although fleeting. I purposefully avoid volunteering and token giving during the holidays and here's why.
1) Organizations often get too much during the holidays and not enough during other times of year
I ran a nonprofit that served homeless families in Cape Coral for several years. We tried really hard to do things right, serve our families, help them celebrate the holidays despite their current circumstance, make things easy on the kids. The flurry of offers for assistance over the holidays was overwhelming. Kind, but way more than we could handle. Other times of year, not so much. If you care about that cause or helping people, think of them in May or July. This is particularly true for us here in Southwest Florida because we have a "season" economy and service agencies see an uptick in the lean summer months.
2) Complex problems require more than stuff
Buying a Christmas gift for a child you think has nothing feels good. You feel like you are really helping them feel joy in an otherwise bleak situation. This can be true sometimes; however, depending on what agencies kids are connected with, they could be getting several doses of Christmas cheer. Again, this in and of itself is not a bad thing, but, if a kid is homeless, they need a place to live, not more toys to haul around (and the truth is, those toys often get left behind when the family has to move or never played with because it's not something the child likes - trust me, I've seen this first hand). Creating affordable and sustainable housing for vulnerable families is hard.If we pooled that time and money that was spent on token, feel-good holiday items together we would have a heck of a lot more to help get people into homes and more robust services to help address their challenges.
3) Caring about your community is more than just a photo-op
Yeah, I said it. I feel like the holiday volunteering photo is an obligation for anyone who considers themselves a leader - local politicians, business owners, book club presidents. There seems to almost be a public bragging about how much they care and how many ladles they slop at the soup kitchen. Throw in some kids or people getting their meals and voila - you got yourself some Facebook-worthy poverty porn! See #2 about complexity. The other component of that is the real work, the advocacy for policy change, the social workers helping challenging clients, the relocation to safety of children in the middle of the night is hard, ongoing, messy, and definitely not good for photos. These, however, are the things that matter. The things that make a situation better. The things that end the suffering of people in the long run. I wish we lauded the folks that do this everyday as much as we do the photo-oppers.
Here's what I do instead
I made serving our community a priority all the time (I am a Millennial after all) . I work with nonprofits for low cost or no cost to help them create strategy or create programs to get funding. This leverages my time and talents to benefit the organization for more than just the short-term. I also serve on nonprofit boards to help align mission and activities to make the most difference. When I give, I try to do it during any other time of year except the holidays. Same goes for volunteering. You can do this too.
If you volunteered or gave toys this holiday season, I'm still proud of you for committing to our community. I just want everyone to think of these organizations outside of the holidays and to focus on what really matters - helping those in our community lead happy, healthy, and stable lives all year round.