Holiday season, thou shalt have your pound of fruitcake. That’s from Shakespeare’s lesser known “Merchant of Christmas Gifts.” If you have already been out and about Christmas shopping, then right about now you’ve likely invented new profanities to utter in battle with traffic and parking. And none of us are cheered by scenes of Black Friday shoppers shoving each other, eyes squinting from pepper spray. Tis the season, all right… but not always the one we hear about in the songs. Rudolph has a red nose, but he got it from Blitzen when he reached over to grab the last heavily discounted Let’s Rock Elmo.
Perhaps Dante Alighieri had a handle on it when he ascribed human weaknesses to his Nine Circles of Hell. Check out this list and tell me if it’s just me. Lust: Gotta get that 4 a.m. price on an Xbox with Kinect, or die trying. Greed: If we mark down the X Box, we’ll get them in here spending on other stuff. Gluttony: Where does pate’ come from again? Wrath: There’s a flock of angry geese on the lawn and they want their livers back! Heresy: What is it that makes my child worship Barbie? Violence: See “Black Friday.” Fraud: No, this is a real Rolex. I only sell them out of my car to discriminating buyers like you. Treachery: How can it stop running? It’s a Rolex for crying out loud! Limbo: I called to tell you there’s no way I’m getting out of this parking lot before noon tomorrow.
But be of good cheer. There’s always all the other wonderful dimensions of the season, and as I do each year I like to gently remind readers that the holidays are a time when we can give ourselves permission to do a great deal of good. Not just because it matters to others, but because it can matter a great deal to you. That’s right, I’m saying it’s all about you. Help yourself find that “merry and bright” place Bing Crosby can’t stop singing about by doing for those outside your immediate realm of family and friends. There’s going to be rough sledding this Christmas all ‘round the world for plenty of people whose names you will never know. I’ll cite some ways here that you can help, but there’s plenty more where these came from.
Mercy Corps is an organization that provides such a wide array of gifts to those in need all over the planet that it’s almost Scrooge-y not to give them a try (mercycorps.org/holiday or 888.842. 0842). Your donation includes a card mailed to a friend or family member explaining that the donation you’ve made in their name matches their own concerns for others; helping children, farmers, those in distress after emergencies, women, or struggling entrepreneurs in remote villages. Or give a dairy cow to a household that will use and sell the milk to become more self-sufficient. Looking for holiday values? A Mercy Corps gift of $75 buys a family a goat, $65 gets them a hive of bees for improving harvests and income, $52 helps someone buy a bicycle for the luxury of transportation. These are “Best Buy” deals of a different sort entirely.
Doctors Without Borders is doing so much as a non-governmental agency that you wish they’d share some of their organizational skills with Washington. You probably know about the need for what they do, but it might prompt you to action to hear that they are now working in nearly 70 countries to assist people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe. Because, unfortunately, there has been that much violence, neglect, and catastrophe.
Now a quick word about food banks: A November editorial in the Los Angeles Times by the former executive director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank, John Arnold, and Katherina M. Rosqueta of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice argued with conviction that cash donations to food banks are more effective than donating food. Donated food may or may not be selected for use by needy families at food banks, perhaps because of individual health issues. Ten dollars donated to a food bank allows the operation to purchase foods the bank needs and that families should eat. Arnold and Rosqueta further explained that food banks are able to leverage their buying power “because they serve as nonprofit, wholesale-like clearinghouses for the food industry’s surplus food, charging only a nominal handling fee for food drawn by charity agencies. So a $10 donation ends up leveraging as much as $200 worth of food for the charity to distribute.” Cash goes further than food with a food bank donation.
If you have concerns about the administrative efficacy of a well-intentioned charity or non-profit organization, take a moment online to visit Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org). This site “works to advance a more efficient and responsive philanthropic marketplace by evaluating the financial health and accountability and transparency of America’s largest charities.” You can quickly determine how much bang for your buck you can expect with your donation, and get metrics on the organization that may strike you as more than you needed to know… but it’s there.
Donations matter, but there’s also the gift of time. You might take time to make gifts, which regardless of the exact nature of the hand-made item (“Mittens! The perfect thing for me, here in Palm Springs…”) creates a space for you to be thinking of others without deploying a credit card. And there’s the gift of time itself. Friends, family, children. They honestly wouldn’t mind spending a little more time with you. Just not at the mall at 4 a.m.