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Charity shouldn't be used as a form of holiday entertainment

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

A few years ago, my phone began ringing off the hook. It was the week before thanksgiving and I was operating a shelter for women and children. Dozens of people were looking for places to donate food, resources, and their time. A few weeks before this, we were struggling to find help and now, as the holidays approached, there seemed to be no end in sight of people who wanted to give their time for a few hours on a random Thursday. Now, one might argue that all of us in the nonprofit world should be grateful for the sudden outpouring of support. But as I fielded the calls, I started to have some suspicions about intentions.

“I want my kids to learn to be thankful for what they have.” one woman said, “I figured if they saw all these people without, they might learn their lesson.”

“My wife and I have been very blessed and we need a reminder of how bad things can be.” another left as a voicemail.

As the calls continued on, it became clear that many of these folks weren’t thinking about the clients we served, rather their own particular interest. They essentially wanted to use the holidays as a poverty zoo. A type of tourism where they could go and observe disparity from behind the safe space of a serving line and then leave feeling better about their circumstances. This isn’t a blanket judgment either, this were their own words.

I was faced with a difficult decision. Do I turn these folks and their assistance away or trade a mother’s dignity in exchange for goods?

We made the decision as an organization that moving forward, we would only allow volunteers who had been with our program for a while to participate during holidays and birthday events at the shelter. Why? Because people’s individual suffering should not be used as entertainment for adults or cautionary scare tactics for children. Many of these folks were we serving had already been exploited on the streets and we didn’t want to continue that within the confines of our shelter, which is supposed to be a safe haven.

It certainly wasn’t a popular decision, but it was an important one. We even stopped allowing people to wrap presents during Christmas! Instead, we had people donate unwrapped gifts and supply the parents with wrapping paper, allowing them to pick presents they felt their children would like, wrap the gifts themselves, and give the gifts to their children in the privacy of their own rooms.

At first, people were upset. However, slowly we started to notice more people saying, “How do I sign up as a regular volunteer? What other needs do you have year round? How do I get more involved?”

The biggest difference came in how our guests responded. Shortly after celebrating a birthday with one of the children staying with us, her mother found a new home. When they left, the little girl said, “Thank you so much! No other hotel we stayed at gave me a birthday party.” That was the proof we needed of the success with this policy. This little girl didn’t feel like she was impoverished and staying in a shelter, she felt like her mom was just looking for a house and staying at a nice hotel. When we changed the way that we responded to people, it changed the way they responded to their circumstance.

It isn’t easy to change the way we’ve been doing things for so long. For many families, going to a soup kitchen or shelter during the holidays is a long standing tradition. But not all traditions are good, helpful, or healthy, even if they are well intentioned. I think for a long time, our society hasn’t even thought to ask the question of how our giving might make the receiver feel. But slowly more and more organizations are adopting the philosophy that receiving help shouldn’t hurt or leave scars. It should be part of the healing process. That means that some of the way we’ve been doing things is going to have to change.

So this holiday season, seek out charities to participate in, to give to, and to assist, but make it part of your life and not just for a season.


Nathan Monk is the author of Chasing the Mouse, Charity Means Love, and his first novel The Miracle is out now for the holidays! You can also support his writing through Patreon here.

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16 comentarios

Very well put! Definitely struck a chord with some folks. I think it's good for parents to wrap their heads around their own motivations as they teach their kids. Even more important is to understand your own heart. Matthew 7 fits well here!

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As a very involved member of a not-for-profit, I don’t know if calling out anyone who takes the time to reach out and donate to your cause as a “poverty tourist” is a good protocol. Get their contact info, reach out during the year, send them info on volunteer opportunities, send out a newsletter to highlight what you’re doing I’m the community... build your support instead of chasing them away by judging the few who take the time..

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Heidi Henkel
Heidi Henkel
26 nov 2019

One thing that is needed on the holidays Thanksgiving and Christmas, is people spending time with people who have disabilities and receive personal care at home. Some of them struggle to find caregivers for the holidays because their regular caregivers want to spend time with their families on the holidays. In order to help in this way, you would need to start working on it a month in advance because you need a criminal record check. Also you would need to learn how. You would need to become an occasional substitute caregiver ahead of time. Then you could help on holidays. Then maybe you could continue your relationship with the person you helped by continuing to be an occasional subs…

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Of course volunteering shouldn't be used as a form of entertainment. With this said, it's important to acknowledge and re direct potential volunteers. Give them another time when you can use their help or speak to organizations about collecting supplies during the critical months when your needs are greatest and donations dwindle. Reeducation is the key. Most people,whether their timing is correct or not, simply have good intentions.

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Speaking from experience as a grant writer for an nonprofit that serves 3000 area children in need: The problem is that when we chastise people for the little voluntary good that they have done, it is very easy for them to simply say, “Well, if it isn’t appreciated, I’ll just do something else with my hard earned dollars.”

If a priest gave fiery sermons condemning people who only showed up for Nativity and Pascha, instead of welcoming them back home chances are they’d be even less inclined to attend the little that they did. For some people, they might think, “Well, good riddance! We don’t need those kind of people here!” But who are we to say how God has…

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