The Gift of Giving: Charity and Volunteering in the Holiday Season

(from the December issue)

By Vishal Narayanaswamy


In the words of the familiar holiday cliché: “‘tis the season to be giving”. After thousands of Americans once again stormed retail giants on Black Friday and kick-started yet another frenzied shopping season, many are wondering if the holidays have simply become a corporate-driven wasteland. Thankfully, the nonprofit organization Network For Good points out that 30% of annual charitable giving occurs during the holidays, meaning that while shoppers may spend upwards of 40 billion dollars on toys, televisions, and tchotchkes, the holiday season retains its spirit of altruism. In honor of this festive generosity, here are some tips to aid in your search for the perfect charity:

  • Donate to a personally meaningful cause. Thousands upon thousands of charitable organizations vie for your attention and donations during the holiday season. From Toys for Tots to Typhoon Haiyan relief, many nonprofits may have worthy goals, but attempting to donate meaningfully to multiple organizations can quickly drive you bankrupt. Instead, focus on donating to an organization that is most personally relevant or meaningful. If, for example, you or a family member have been afflicted by cancer, consider donating to the American Cancer Society. Similarly, donate to UNICEF or The Salvation Army if you have a vested interest in humanitarian or poverty relief.
  • Promote lesser known charities. Although causes promoted by the likes of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and United Way are admirable, lesser-known nonprofit organizations with similar goals are often less bureaucratic and more efficient with donations. Due to their lesser known status, these organizations also see less income in donations per year, yet brilliantly showcase their charitable abilities with limited funds. Take the nonprofit organization Child Aid, which operates on less than $2 million per year to promote literacy programs and poverty relief in Latin America. While several larger charities may pay disproportionate amounts of income to solicitors rather than the needy, promoting smaller and reputable nonprofits can often garner more net philanthropic benefit.
  • Conduct background checks. An always useful word of advice: do your homework. Despite their benevolent and hopeful names, many charitable organizations have poor transparency and efficiency in conducting activities. A recently released report from the Tampa Bay Times found hundreds of fraudulent charity operations attracting donations by using similar titles and phrasings to well known nonprofits. At the top of the Tampa Bay Times’ “50 Worst Charities” list is Kids Wish Network, an operation mimicking the Make-A-Wish Foundation that spent less than 1% of its income on charitable activities and paid out over $110 million to corporate partners in the past decade alone. Fake charitable organizations have also been known to surface in moments of national tragedy, such as the Boston Bombings and Sandy Hook Massacre. As a charitable donor, be vigilant and conduct thorough research to deduce whether your money is going to the needy and homeless or a corporate solicitor’s pocket.
  • Time is more valuable than money. Instead of writing a check to a nonprofit group, consider volunteering your time and service to organizations and individuals in need. From helping out at a soup kitchen or food bank to cleaning a lake shoreline, community service benefits community institutions, the environment, and even one’s own occupational and life outlook. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US volunteering rate decreased in 2012 by 0.3 to 26.5%, meaning that now, more than ever, is the time to increase community service involvement. Ultimately, committing one’s own time and effort to a cause contributes the greatest societal change and strengthens a community’s interdependent ties.

As the madness of holiday shopping intensifies in the coming weeks, keep in mind the welfare of less fortunate others. Through active involvement with charitable organizations, even the smallest donations of time and money can reclaim the holidays as a time of giving.



Vishal Narayanaswamy (’15) is a junior and contributor to The Sword & Shield.

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