Eight tips for better holiday giving

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“We make a living by what we get.
We make a life by what we give. ”
– Winston Churchill

The holiday season is upon us, whether we’re ready for it or not. I can tell the season is here because shoppers are fighting over this year’s most popular toys, Starbucks has released it’s red cups, and the Facebook debate about whether to say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” is in full swing.

A number of charities have also started their seasonal campaigns. For most, this is the make it or break it season.  While the rest of us are jostling crowds and sipping eggnog lattes, or better yet — shopping online with a rum and eggnog in hand — these charities are counting on us to set enough money aside to see them and their clients through the upcoming year. So that they can provide others with things like food, clothing, shelter, care and support.

It provides a little perspective this time of year. And also makes me realize that my current level of generosity sucks.

Generosity is a learned behaviour. My parents were always very involved in the community when I was young, spending a great deal of their time and energy volunteering. And the small town I grew up in is arguably one of the most generous communities in Saskatchewan, raising tens of thousands of dollars for Telemiracle every year, not to mention the numerous other causes the town supports.

So I should be awesome at being generous. But I’m not. In fact, I’ve had a few epic fails.

Like the time I tried to give a barefoot homeless guy a pair of shoes, because it was November, and I was freezing, and walking by him sitting on the sidewalk with no shoes was driving my nuts.

So I said, “Excuse me, but I have these shoes for you if you want them.”

And he smiled and said, “Thanks sweetheart. But I have shoes at home.”

Or the time I was shopping for groceries in a packed Walmart with two grouchy toddlers. And I was on my last nerve when a young man approached me and asked if I could spare any money for food.

And I said “No, sorry,” because who carries cash these days?

I said “No” to a man asking for food … while standing in a grocery store … filling a shopping cart full of food.

I said “No” in front of my kids.

As the guy walked away, it dawned on me that I’d just squandered a huge opportunity to show my kids how to be a decent person and had instead acted like a total shit. So I dug in my purse and scrounged up a handful of change. And when I gave it to this young man, I noticed that he was really just a kid. And his hands were dirty. And his clothes were dirty. And it must have sucked to ask someone else’s mom for money to buy food, and have her say “No,” in front of her kids.

So these are the stories that stick with me and make me want to do better. These, and the fact that I have numerous friends and family members who rock at generosity. Here’s what I’ve learned from my failures and their successes.

1 – Choose things that matter to you.

When it comes to charity and volunteering, you’re efforts will be much more rewarding if you choose causes that align with your personal values and focus on issues that you care about. You’ll be more engaged. You’ll be more committed. And you’ll be moving one step closer to the kind of world you want to live in.

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2 – Don’t judge how others donate their time or their money.

We’ve all seen the Facebook messages questioning why people support one group while another suffers. I know I’ve been guilty of passing judgement on causes that don’t line up with my personal values or don’t make sense to me. But the simple truth is that generosity isn’t a zero sum game. Giving to one group doesn’t take away from another. Generosity is contagious.

So instead of pitting different groups against one another, let’s be inspired by the generosity of others’ and channel that energy into supporting the causes that matter most to us.

3 – Do your research.

Once you’ve found a cause you care about, it’s worth it to do a little extra research into the group or organization you’ve chosen to support. What is required of volunteers? How are donations used? What are their short- and long-term goals and how do they plan to reach them?

There are some great websites, like Charity Navigator or the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, that are designed just for this purpose. But remember, it’s not just about the bottom line. Its about the impact the organization has on those they are trying to help. As Dan Pallota said in this 2013 TED talk, “The next time you’re looking at a charity, don’t ask about the rate of their overhead. Ask about the scale of their dreams.”

4 – Know your limits.

We all need to decide what level of giving works for us. You don’t want to put yourself in a position where you resent being charitable, but that can happen if you commit to more money or time than you can afford. When you plan your giving ahead of time, by either scheduling your volunteer time or adding charitable giving to your budget, it’s easier to hit your giving goals.

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5 – Set realistic expectations.

In many ways, giving is a selfish act. We help others because it makes us feel good. And that’s okay.

Except sometimes, when we don’t get the reaction we expect, it puts a damper on our feel-good deeds. Sometimes the people you’re trying to help don’t feel thankful. Maybe they feel tired. Or angry. Or ashamed. Or simply pre-occupied with other things. Maybe the last thing in the world they want to do is plaster on a smile and give thanks.

And that’s okay too.

Generosity is our choice; we are owed nothing in return.

6 – Understand the need.

I chose to offer shoes to the not-homeless man because his bare feet made me uncomfortable. I should have focused on what he needed, not on what I wanted to give.

We see this a lot when disasters strike and people flood the Red Cross with their unwanted clothes, household goods and furniture — when what the Red Cross really needs is money. You know their hearts are in the right place, but sometimes this kind of generosity does more harm than good.

Fortunately, it’s really easy to find out what people need. You just have to ask. Or better yet — listen.

7 – Use your strengths.

Do you know the story of Rudy Ruettiger, the young man who, after years of insane perseverance and dedication, finally achieved his dream of playing for the Notre Dame football team? I thought it was an incredibly inspiring story, until someone pointed out that had Rudy dedicated that much time and energy to something he was even remotely talented at, he may have achieved a hell of a lot more than three plays and a single sack.

It’s kind of like this story about a young woman who volunteered to build a library overseas, only to discover that her sub-par construction work was secretly ripped apart and rebuilt in the night.

If you’re not good in emergency situations, you probably shouldn’t volunteer for your local fire department. But maybe you can put your kick-ass networking skills to use fundraising for new equipment.

We all have things we’re good at. And we can do a lot more good in the world if we find ways to use our strengths.

8 – Every little bit helps.

When my community was hit by a plow wind a couple of summers ago, and we had no power and no water, and were exhausted after spending the entire day cleaning up the mess, an older couple stopped by and offered us bottled water and baked goods. They apologised that they physically weren’t able to help with the clean up, but wanted to do something to show the community that they cared.

It was an incredibly thoughtful gesture. And it was the push we needed to keep going.

Which just goes to show that even a small act of kindness can have a big impact.
What’s your best advice for holiday giving?