Last year we had a brutal cold spell (for Vancouver where winter usually stays above freezing). I wrote a blog post about it… I was carpooling with my family downtown and saw a man wearing a light coat with no blanket trying to sleep under an overpass. It was horrible. My reaction was quite simply to cry. I felt overwhelmed and compelled to do something. So I went out that morning and bought a blanket from a nearby store. When I went to deliver it to him, he was gone. So I ended up donating the blanket to charity. And wrote a post about how you can support charities working with the homeless in Vancouver.
My immediate reaction was entirely emotional. I felt like I needed to do something, anything… and fast. My second reaction was a little more practical. I took the time to research local charities already working with homeless people. I wanted to find out what they really needed. How I could best support them.
Since then I have taken time here and there to learn more about local charitable work. Not too much time, but enough to start figuring out what is the most effective approach to local charitable giving.
I learned a few basics along the way- like work with existing charities (they are the experts), really listen to what the charity is requesting (not what you want to give them), and often the best donation is a cash donation.
I have also over the years, again and again, learned to take a hard look at myself and why I do things. So often we think we are trying to help, when what we are really trying to do is alleviate some guilt and/ or feel good about helping out. When your approach to giving is based on your needs and your emotions, can you really be the best donor possible?
The best donations are based on what the charity has requested, and better yet before that even happens are based on the requests of the person receiving the donation. How does a charity know what people want and need? They ask their recipients or they make it possible for their recipients to request specific items.
My good friend Iha is responsible for community outreach at Byrne Creek Secondary School in Burnaby. This area has an extremely high refugee population. The refugee population is very diverse- from former doctors and professors to former subsistence farmers. But all of them are struggling to get by. While looking for jobs they are trying to keep themselves and their children fed, clothed, and healthy.
Can you believe that very few charities focus on the needs of a secondary student in Greater Vancouver? There are lots of charities for elementary students. There are some wonderful charities that support teenagers that have left school. But very few are available to help provide basics that will keep secondary students in school- keep their bellies full, keep them warmly clothed, and help them with extra resources like sneakers for PE.
This year Iha and her colleagues quietly approached students and their families about what they need. They received over 150 requests for winter coats and clothing. A local rotary club managed to get 100. Through friends and family Iha got most of the rest. There are still a few students in coats that are too small or worn out.
The school is now on the Vancouver Sun Adopt a School program… with NO bites. Not a single offer to help them out with their needs. They are trying to get a food program going, they hope to support some special programs for parents, and they still need lots of hats, mitts, and scarves.
So what’s the point of all this? I confess the story of Byrne Creek is a side bar but relevant. Saundra from Good Intentions wrote a phenomenal and simple guide to holiday charitable giving. It is less than $4 to purchase and I cannot praise it enough. It is worth every penny and then some.
To give you a few snippets… I learned that my blanket purchase could have caused more harm than good (could have increased the chances of hypothermia because it is cotton). I learned that doing similar feel good activities like driving downtown to deliver sandwiches and hot drinks on the streets means homeless people are inundated with quite possibly too much free food options in December, and go back to being very hungry after the holidays. I learned that way too often we donate based on our needs and not what is actually needed.
So please, please do yourself and the people you want to help a favour and take the time to read Saundra’s guide. Then take a few more minutes to read the donation page of the charity you want to help before deciding what to give. And even better, think a little bit off the beaten track- to segments of the population that seem to be overlooked like the secondary students at Byrne Creek. And then this Christmas Eve while visions of sugar plums dance in your head, you can truly rest easy knowing you helped out in the best way possible.