Opinion: How Not To Give

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Smart giving recognizes that those in the eye of the storm know what they need best and when.

As we move through the Thanksgiving season and the holidays beyond, there is a natural leaning toward thoughts of gratitude and appreciation and a desire in some to help those who are less fortunate or those who have recently gone through difficult times. This is to our credit. But the season is a jumping off point to consider how not to give.

This idea impressed itself on me over the past several weeks as I watched news coverage of the devastation down in the Houston area and shortly thereafter in Puerto Rico. In the aftermath of these hurricanes and floods, people from every corner of the country gave, but not all giving was equal. Some gave money, while others donated water, food, canned goods, clothing, toys, diapers, medicine, and many other things.
I’m always amazed at American generosity, but as I said, not all giving is equal. In addition to the news coverage about the fact that people were giving in so many ways, there was also coverage, although considerably less, about the number of man-hours spent sorting through the tonnage to sort everything and decide what was actually worth distributing.

Take clothing, for example. In one news report, a volunteer spoke about the endless hours she and other volunteers spent sorting through socks and underwear. We’re not talking about new Fruit-of-the Looms here, but something someone took out of a drawer or closet and hauled down to some central spot for donations. I don’t know about you, but I’m not down with wearing someone else’s used underwear or socks.

If the response to that is that beggars can’t be choosers, I can only say that the people needing help have just been through a lot of trauma, having lost, in many cases, everything. Perhaps the one thing they have left is their dignity and maybe a little hope—nothing kills both quicker than the prospect of wearing a stranger’s used underwear. If that’s the best we can come up with…then I don’t know.

Believe it or not, the same goes for other items. What I mean to say is that for every item given, someone has to sort, pack, transport, unload, and distribute. All of this takes time and resources. My point is that unless a specific request is made for these items (i.e. winter coats, diapers, toys, bottled water), they can hinder relief efforts more than help.

Sometimes the best thing is to give money or a gift card so that the people on the ground doing the relief work and the victims themselves can decide what they need and when. Of course you want to make sure that the agency, person, or group you are giving to is legitimate, but having established they’re bonafide, such giving is the best way to help.

It’s the difference between smart giving and emotional giving or perhaps even selfish giving. Smart giving accomplishes several things; it recognizes that time and money are necessary to haul material goods across long distances and that once there, these things must be stored, broken down into bite-size pieces and somehow distributed. Smart giving also recognizes that those in the eye of the storm know what they need best and when.

This stands in contrast to emotional giving, which imagines how awful a situation must be and reacts immediately without any real thought as to what might actually be involved with recovery and relief. This giving does not come from a bad motivation, just one that is not well thought out.

Then there is selfish giving—the used underwear type of giving. This giving has the appearance of generosity, but it’s really just an opportunity. Maybe it’s just a chance to avoid paying a dump fee when cleaning out the basement, garage or attic. This type of “charity” has no real sacrifice attached and it allows the giver the illusion of doing good but it’s really just table scraps, stuff they don’t want anyway, and that’s all it is.

So as we move through this Thanksgiving season and the holidays beyond, should you decide to give, be thoughtful and deliberate about how you do it. There will never be a shortage of those in need and if my hunch is right about climate change, there will be many natural disasters and many devastated communities. Think about how you would feel and then act accordingly.

Read: Opinion: Time to Pay Attention

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