It’s the season for giving—not only to family and friends, but to those in need. This time of year, we are surrounded by solicitations for toys and gifts for the poor, for donations to charities, and for help in all kinds of good works.
We can’t say yes to every request. So how do we decide who is genuinely in need? How do we know when our giving is helpful and when it might merely foster dependence?
Probably the purest form of giving is to that person we know who truly needs some help today. Yet that’s the rarest form of giving for most of us. In part it’s because of the social safety nets we have that we assume are helping people. In part it’s because of our own discomfort. Most of us don’t personally know homeless people or find out when acquaintances are struggling financially.
When I am traveling in big cities and encounter panhandlers, I feel guilty when I walk by them. Yet I remember a story I kept from the London Times some years ago about a man whose profession was begging and who made a good living at it. I think of it every time I need the courage to walk by a beggar. Because the problem is, I don’t know who’s genuine and who’s in the profession.
The same problem occurs with phone and mail solicitations for giving to charities. Which ones are genuine? Which ones use their donations wisely?
This time of year, with all the expectations around giving, it’s easy to be surprised by guilt and give before you think about it. That is the kind of giving I often regret later.
So I’ve learned not to do it. Giving, whether spontaneous or planned, is best done consciously. I don’t give to individuals on the street, for example. Instead, I give to two local charities which feed and care for homeless people. I can support those organizations whole-heartedly, because I have researched them. I know they use their donations well and accomplish a great deal. I believe giving to them provides more effective help than giving five dollars to someone on the street.
If you want to be sure you are doing conscious giving, you might ask yourself the following questions:
• Will this gift help someone solve a problem, or will it take responsibility for solving the problem away from them?
• Will this gift encourage the recipient’s independence or foster dependence?
• Is this a “should” that I would do out of guilt or obligation?
• Am I giving this gift freely and willingly?
• What might be the consequences if I don’t make this gift?
• What might be the consequences if I do make this gift?
• Are there ways I could help this person other than through a monetary gift? Perhaps there are other creative solutions to the problem that we could find together.
• Do I need to stop and think before I say yes or no to this gift? Being surprised or rushed into giving is very likely to lead to an unconscious decision and some resentment or regret. No matter where a request comes from, you can always say, “I need to think about this, and I’ll get back to you.”
To me, giving with joy and satisfaction means giving with awareness. Whether it is helping out an individual or a family, or whether it is writing a check to an organization I know to be well-managed, I find more pleasure in giving when I have tried to make sure my gift will be well-used.