It's Christmas morning, early '80s, in a well-kept, working-class black neighborhood of a mid-sized Southern city. My mom sends my big brother, my two big sisters and me to church for service, so she can stay home and wrap the gifts she's hidden all over the house. She must have hidden them well, because I sure couldn't find them. When we return home, there are piles of presents underneath the tree to greet us.
Earlier that year, my parents had divorced. The split knocked my college-educated mother and us kids squarely out of our middle-class existence. I didn't learn until much later that she'd depended on a toy-donation charity to get by that Christmas. It would have been a very bleak holiday season without the stuffed animals, dolls and other forgotten items we unwrapped that day. That charity, run by well-meaning church ladies, literally saved our holiday.
Now that Halloween is over, we have only the speed bump of Thanksgiving to interrupt the full-on orgy of the American holiday shopping season. From now until Dec. 24 — and, who are we kidding, beyond that when you count after-Christmas sales — we will be inundated with messages to buy, grab and get. We'll also be called upon to give — an act that elevates us above our everyday selves to the people we know we could be. We'll dig deep down and volunteer, or at least throw some dollars at our favorite pet charities. Because this time of year is special — the one season we allow ourselves permission to be selfless and generous, to indulge our sense of noblesse oblige. Or, you know, get off on a cocktail of self-importance, class reinforcement and false modesty.
It seems contradictory, but though you mean to make a difference, giving the wrong way can actually make things worse — and make you come off like a douche. Yes, Ducks, there is a right way to give, and there is a way to give like a pompous jerk. The first way acknowledges that giving is a reciprocal act, an investment in the community. People expect to see a positive return on their investments, and build relationships aimed at helping this to happen. This kind of giving casts the giver as a partner, not a benefactor, and preserves the recipient's self-respect.
The other way frames giving as a lopsided transaction that only benefits the recipient. It robs the recipient of agency and dignity, and it diminishes the courage it takes to even seek help. In this scenario, the back-patting rhetoric showered on the giver could turn the head of Mother Teresa.
Take those charity ladies who supplied toys for my family so long ago. My mom relayed the story of that Christmas to me years later, when I became an adult. Thick-ankled club matrons had craned around our living room, frowning at our baroque chandelier, demanding to know "where are the children," and wrinkling their faces at the missed opportunity to pinch our cheeks and pat our heads — which my mom would've immolated herself before allowing. Though there were subsequent times when we could have used a hand, she never again sought help from a charitable organization.
Montreal Johnson, a 36-year-old gunnery sergeant, runs the Mecklenburg County office of Marine Toys for Tots. He says the type of giving that happened in my home that holiday season should never happen. "The Marines themselves come to events to hand out toys to parents whenever possible, so the community can see that the Corps cares about them as much as they care about military personnel," he says. "But the goal is to have the parent give the child the toy; we don't want to take that respect away from the parents."
Giving is almost always born of a positive instinct, but a creeping condescension can poison the cycle, alienating deserving recipients and discouraging them from seeking help, as in my mom's case, or pissing them off and risking a fist to the face, in others. Sadly, this type of tone-deaf presumptuousness is often heightened in people who are the most pumped for a cause or organization.
It's like being a new religious convert: Everything is black and white, good and evil, and usually under-informed. You get a little bit of knowledge about an issue, hear a victim's story that breaks your heart and you're riding the generosity rocket. Here's a secret: In order to successfully fundraise, charities and volunteer organizations manipulate your emotions with stories. And culturally, we're wired for it. The thought of giving fills us with the warm-and-cuddlies. Movies are full of everyday heroes saving street-smart but vulnerable kids, battered women with hearts of gold and homeless musical geniuses. Human beings innately respond to stories, and the ones used by charities are designed to make you laugh or cry, but mostly they are meant to get you to open your wallet or donate your time.
That's perfectly fine; charities have to do whatever they can to get our rut-oriented behinds caring about our less fortunate neighbors. But to avoid being swept into a maelstrom of Kony 2012-like saviordom, it's best to make sure the prospective organization can back up their stories with facts: what is the charity doing, what's its impact, how does it handle its money and your donations?
Ask yourself why you really want to volunteer, what's behind the emotional call-to-arms. It's OK to want to feel important or to need to feel appreciated, but if that's all there is to it, the instant you feel taken for granted, you may develop a resentment and be tempted to move on. Once you examine your motives and find they're pure, decide what you want to be doing and what you can commit to — and follow through. Know that the experience of giving becomes richer and deeper if the charity or foundation you support resonates in some personal way for you. (Check out what organizations CL staffers are passionate about in the accompanying story.)
There are several ways to give charitably; you can donate time, necessities or money to an organization. Tom Layton of Samaritan's Purse says in an emergency such as Hurricane Sandy, where the situation can change daily, cash donations are almost always the more efficient way of helping, compared to contributing bulky items that need to be transported, sorted and distributed.
Maybe giving directly to people on the street is more your style. Situational giving may feel more spontaneous, and you know that the money isn't being spent on administrative costs, like at a nonprofit. But Peter Rieke, a director for Samaritan's Feet, warns that this may not be the best idea. "A lot of [people] just spend it on the wrong things," he says. "You're better off going through churches and other organizations who can handle it for you.
"There could be addiction issues," he adds. "It could be a danger to your life. You gotta be careful."
This is not to dampen any sparks of philanthropy lurking inside. After all, whatever human impulse that yanks your heart strings hard enough to move you to donate time, money or items is a good thing — the U.S. Census Bureau reports the number of Americans living in poverty at almost 15 percent and climbing. But before you go nominating yourself for that Congressional Medal of Honor for volunteering at a soup kitchen, take a second to check your head. It's an easy slide from engaged and concerned neighbor to pompous insensitivity, and sometimes we can slip without even realizing we've crossed the line.