The Only 3 Things You Should Give to Charity

Because you don’t know better than they do what they need.

It’s the holiday season, which means that it’s time for clickbait-y articles like, “The Top 10 Things to Give to Charity for the Holidays.” But I’m going to one better, and give you the clickbait-iest article of all: The Only 3 Things You Should Give to Charity. Oh yeah. I’m that confident.

Are you ready?

  1. Exactly what they have asked for
  2. Money
  3. Your time and attention

….that’s it. That’s the list.

I’ve worked for or volunteered for multiple nonprofits and charities, so I feel pretty confident with my list. Let me tell you why.

1.Why You Should Only Give Them What They Ask For

Most people donate items for a good reason. They want to help! That’s a fantastic impulse. But they don’t always think through all the implications of their gift. And some people… well they don’t have as good reasons. Some people are merely trying to assuage guilt from their own over-consumption. Some people think that the poor should be “grateful” for literally anything. Some people are donating items just for the tax write-off. Some people are donating so they don’t have to bother sorting through things themselves. Some people donate because they don’t want to pay the fee for the dump.

What a lot of people don’t think about are the various resources that charities need to expend when it comes to donations.

 First, organizations need to sort through donations. They need to make sure the items are in good condition, that food is before its expiration date, that clothes are clean and somewhat in fashion (a good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t wear the clothes yourself or gift the clothing to your friends or family, then don’t donate it. If it isn’t good enough for you, it isn’t good enough for the clientele of the charity, either), that electronics work, etc. This all takes time. During the holidays, it takes a LOT of time. Time that employees or volunteers are then not spending doing other things.

Second there is storage. Each organization has a different storage capacity, but I say with confidence that basically every organization has storage that is bursting at the seams. At best, it is a well-organized Narnia closet that somehow manages to hold more than it should. At worst, it is a chaotic Pile O’Stuff that last saw organization about five giant donations ago. And when there is that much stuff, organizations need to make choices about what to keep, and those choices aren’t even always about what they need the most- it’s sometimes about what they think they might not be able to get again, or what they don’t think another organization could use, etc. An organization might need couches to give to clients for apartments, but don’t have anyone who needs a couch at the moment. But are they going to be sure they get a couch the next time they need one? They might not, so into the storage unit the couch goes, where it sits until it is needed, taking up half of their available storage space. Maybe a local school just did a drive for menstrual hygiene products, and the organization now has tampons stuffed into every spare inch of their storage. They can’t possibly use or give away all the products in the near future, but because they’re name-brand, still-wrapped products, they know they will eventually use all of them, so they might as well keep it all.

An organization will rarely, if ever, turn away donations, even if they can eyeball the donation and determine that they don’t want or need the item. They are desperately worried about being seen as ungrateful, or turning someone off of donating in general. So they’ll take it with a smile, and you’ll never know that they are silently screaming. And then they’ll do the work that you didn’t bother to do, and sort things into what they actually need, what should go to the dump, and what will make yet another donation trip to the local thrift shop.

Almost every nonprofit or charity will have a wishlist of items they need on a consistent basis or at particular times. If you can’t find one, call the organization and find out. You can also be on the lookout for specific calls for items. Do you have an old bookshelf you know you need to get rid of eventually, but can keep around for a bit? Hold on to it until you see a call for bookshelves from a charity, and hey, you are now fulfilling an exact need! Or contact the charity and let them know that you will have certain items available for a certain amount of time, and they can be on the lookout for clients to match your items with. Maybe they don’t know anyone who needs a bookshelf right now, but if they ask some of their clients it will turn out one of them needs a bookshelf.

2. Why You Should Just Give Them Money

I cannot emphasize enough how helpful cold, hard cash is to charities. It is the lifeblood of a charity, and the most important type of funding is the “no strings attached” donation funding that an organization can use how it sees fit. Most of the grants and programs that help fund charities want to fund specific projects or programs—few are willing to give a grant to an organization just to help it pay staff, or pay rent on its office space, or keep the lights on. Federal funding often can’t cover things that organizations find incredibly useful, like giftcards for clients to do their own shopping at a shelter, or something like that. Donation money is vitally important for general operations funding or for specific discretionary funding.

3. Why You Should Give Them Your Time and Attention

Not everything you give to a charity has to be material. Equally important to specific items or money are time and attention. While in an ideal world all work would be paid work, the truth is that in Whatever Hellish Stage of Capitalism This Is, a lot of important work is only going to be done if people are willing to volunteer to do it. If you are willing and able to do so, offer to volunteer for a local organization. Know going in that this isn’t necessarily going to be glamorous or fun work—not everyone gets to have that super photogenic moment of putting a house together or dealing one-on-one with clients. A lot of the time, it’s going to be sorting the above-mentioned donations, or folding newsletters, or answering phones, or even just doing actual housekeeping. The “grunt work” of volunteering is incredibly important. And if you can’t volunteer, give your attention—attend or publicize fundraisers, share social media messages, talk about the charity in letters to the editor or discussions with elected officials—there are a lot of ways you can give the organization some love.

Giving to charities and nonprofits is a fantastic thing, and I certainly don’t want to discourage it. But when you are donating, make sure that you are thinking of the organization more than you are thinking of yourself.

Signed: Feminist Fury

Featured image is of a scrabble tile holder with letters spelling “charity.” It was taken by Flickr user airpix and released under a CC-BY-2.0 license.

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