I must admit to having Grinch-like qualities when it comes to the winter holidays. By the time we get to December, I am burned out on Christmas carols and holiday décor that have been going strong since, at least, October. My local Macys actually never takes down their tinsel and glittery balls in an attempt to get me to feel Christmasy in August, September, and October. Really, it’s overkill.
For those of you who have deep feelings about the holidays, especially deeply held religious convictions, I respect your joy and spiritual connection to this time of year. I, however, am part of a group that does not celebrate Christmas and is not enchanted with Hanukkah being lumped in to the orgy of commercialism that engulfs everyone in mid to late December.
I must admit to having no talent for things like cookie exchanges (I don’t bake) and blind gift exchanges (mine is always the gift that no one wants). I also know that every “holiday” party I’m invited to is really a Christmas party, so I’m on the outside looking in from the get go.
Now I’m going to tell you what I love about the holiday season. This is a great time to exercise your charitable inclinations and give me or other non-celebrants a gift, at the same time. You see, I really don’t need scented candles or reindeer socks, but I’m deeply committed to making the world a bit better than it is and I actually welcome a simple holiday card that includes the message, “A donation has been made in your name.”
If you aren’t big on charitable gift giving, I’m going to let you in on a secret: it’s a great way to stretch your limited holiday budget. You can make a monetary gift to an organization and ask for a gift acknowledgement. They will almost always be happy to send one and will not reveal how much you donated. If you want credit, I’m sure you can write at the bottom of the letter, “I gave $25 in your name,” but since the best charity is anonymous or, at the very least, non-braggy, you might want to skip that.
We are, of course, getting to the time of year when you need to assemble your tax records for the IRS and, if you’ve slacked off on donations, this year, your gift/gifts are deductible, so everyone wins.
Some of us have been disillusioned, over the past few years, when we find out that charities that we have routinely supported are less than ethical about the distribution of the funds that they collect. While I am well aware that all charities have administrative costs, it distresses me to hear that charities I have placed my faith in are paying their CEOs astronomical salaries or offering unreasonable perks, in the name of recruitment. You may disagree with me on this, but there is a certain compromise that people make when they work for NPOs and that should expand to their salaries. I want the money I donate to go to the cause, not the executives. A good way to check on how agencies are using donated money is to check on a website like CharityWatch, which gives A and B grades to the charities you can trust. Another site I found rates best and worst charities enabling you to make an educated assessment of where you are sending your charitable dollars. An article in the New York Times expands on doing due diligence in researching charities if you are thinking of making charitable bequests in your will.
Here are some of my very personal suggestions on how to thrill me with a charitable gift in my name:
1) Shop locally – it’s no secret that many of our nearby community organizations can use a monetary leg-up, this year. The great think is a gift to a local agency is something that you can actually see at work. Surely there is a shelter, publically supported daycare center, elder care center, or non-profit hospital that could use your gifts, at this time of year. If the person you are honoring has a deep commitment to a religious organization, church, synagogue, or mosque, find out if there is a discretionary fund or altar fund to which you can donate. A high school friend of mine died at a very young age and her synagogue named a pre-school in honor of her extensive work on their behalf. Gifts to schools and centers are heartfelt, appreciated, and will help to shape the next generation.
As a librarian, I am obligated to mention that a gift to your local library would be greatly appreciated. I do want to instruct you on the best way to donate. Check with your library and find out if they have a Friends of Library group. This is the best way to donate money to a library. Most Friends groups are 501c3 organizations, specifically charged with raising money for the library. They also have the most discretion as to where the money is allocated. If your library is part of a bigger government entity, city or county, and you donate directly to the library, the money will likely go into the general fund and will be subject to oversight by the government managers. Friends groups are made up of wonderful people who support library programs, make gifts to collections, run book stores that benefit the library, and give of themselves in many important ways. If you have no money to give and have some time, volunteer for your local library Friends’ group.
One thing: while I know it is tempting to go to a bookstore and buy a favorite book to donate to the library, or clean out your own shelves and haul them to the library, this is not always beneficial to the library. First, libraries build collections according to set standards and your gift may, or may not, fit the collection development plan. Second, if you are getting rid of a stack of National Geographics, old Harlequins, or even dog-eared copies of Stephen King, the library has no need for them and will probably have to dispose of them. Ask first; donate after.
2) Find a cause that is near and dear to the recipient: in my family, it’s very easy to find causes we support, and most of them are health related. My husband has been cursed (I guess that is the opposite of blessed) with a number of serious health issues. I welcome gifts to heart and kidney organizations and the Children’s Tumor Foundation which supports research into the disease, neurofibromatosis that is the most common undiagnosed genetic disorder. There are many cancer organizations that can use your donations. Really, the list is endless. However, you don’t have to focus only on health issues. Every family has personal connections to causes that show your special concern when you take the trouble to match the cause to the recipient.
3) Be an animal lover: I have an inordinate number of friends who are involved in animal rescue. It seems to be the cause of choice in the New York City area. Many rescues need your dollars to house and feed animals that have been saved from so-called “kill” shelters around the country. Here is where I have to offer a caveat: check with your local Better Business Bureau or SPCA to make sure that the kennel is legitimate. Here is the reason I caution against gifting to kennels without study:
Almost three years ago, on the recommendation of a friend who is very involved in rescue, we went to a Long Island kennel to adopt a dog. When the dog we had come to meet did not connect with us, we found another pooch that basically jumped into my lap and stayed, forever. We willingly paid an (excessive) fee for our dog and took him home. A day later, our vet informed us that he was riddled with parasites, had lyme disease, and was one sick pup. $1200 later, we had the dog of our dreams. The kennel in question is currently under indictment by the New York Attorney General’s Office for fraud based on our claim, among others. However, it is a cautionary tale(sic) because it is so easy to want to help animals.
If kennels aren’t the way to go, consider supporting organizations that train and provide therapy animals to humans in need. You may immediately think of guide dogs for the blind, and there are several excellent schools around the country that specialize in training these wonderful animals. However, there are also centers that train companion animals for veterans with PTSD; individuals with hearing impairments; dogs that alert people with seizure disorders to oncoming attacks; and dogs that visit hospitals, schools, and nursing centers to introduce comfort animals to residents. My library, and many others, uses therapy dogs to encourage children to read out loud. It’s an inspirational program and my dog/ human teams are generous and patient people.
4) Support your passion or the passion of the gift recipient! What is your gift recipients’ personal passion? Are they a supporter of the arts or theater? Do they want to expand the opportunities for young women around the world? There are so many organizations that can help young people grow in exceptional ways that the possibilities are limitless.
Many of you may have never heard of Idina Menzel until John Travolta mispronounced her name at the Oscars, last winter. However, Ms. Menzel has been a light on Broadway for at least twenty years, since she first appeared in Rent and The Wild Party. She recognizes, as do many studies, that there is a positive correlation between the arts and children’s success in school. To this end, she and her ex-husband, Taye Diggs, started a summer camp for girls called A Broader Way Foundation which gives young New Yorkers the chance to experience performance and music in an outdoor setting, and empowers them through the arts. Perhaps this is the next generation of performers or maybe this is simply a way of giving these girls an outlet for creativity and performance that is frequently cut in overwhelmed school budgets. Whichever it is, this is a charity that gives young women a chance to express themselves and give voice to their talents.
One of my personal favorite charities is a group called Room to Read. This agency was started by a former Microsoft executive who, when traveling in Nepal, discovered that children in Nepal had no libraries or books to further their educations. In a very grassroots move, John Wood, the Microsoft manager, started an organization that donates books and builds libraries for children in Africa and Asian. Certainly there are children in our own country who need this support, but to take a world view of growing leaders, Room to Read is accomplishing this goal on a universal scale.
However, in our own country, Dolly Parton has taken library-building to a very personal level. Some years ago, Ms. Parton started Imagination Library, an initiative that provided children in her home county in Tennessee with books each month of their lives till the age of five. Try to imagine how important it is for children without access to books and libraries to receive personal books for the first sixty months of their lives! Now, multiply this program, because Ms. Parton now provides matching funds for any community willing to provide start-up funds for children in their own community. I don’t think anyone ever doubted the size of Ms. Parton’s heart, but her commitment to early childhood literacy is outstanding, too.
One more program for you to consider is In2Books, both as a volunteer organization and a destination for your donated dollars. I have actually worked with this organization during a period in my life when I was housebound, caring for my husband, and looking for a way to stay sane through volunteerism. In2Books matches virtual volunteers and children in classrooms to discuss books. The adult volunteer and the child read the same books and, through an exchange of e-mails, discuss the book and compare thoughts. As a volunteer, you do have to be pre-screened because you are dealing directly with children, and you pay a small fee for the background check. You are them matched with a classroom, at the beginning of the school year, and communicate with your child and the child’s teacher about four times throughout the year. A lot of this program’s success depends on committed teachers in poor schools who add to their classroom workload by overseeing this program. Your cost for volunteering is minimal. Most books that you share are available through your local library. There is great satisfaction in knowing you are encouraging young people to read and think about what they read, and you can actually see their growth as readers during the course of the year. In2Books is top-rated by www.GreatNonprofits.com.
As we grow older, we need less “stuff” and can truly appreciate the value of generosity in our lives. Grinch or not, this is the time of year to remember the gifts that we are given and the gifts that we can share with others. As the story goes, once he discovers the true meaning of Christmas, caring and giving, the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes. A holiday transplant of love and sharing is undoubtedly the greatest gift you can give to someone you love.