Charitable Giving: Are We Holiday Do-Gooders Just Selfishly Easing Our Guilt?

11/22/2010 04:42 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2012

Last year on the day before Thanksgiving, I spent about 20 minutes researching food banks in New York where my small donation could be put to good use. I settled on one that seemed particularly effective, submitted my Mastercard details, then grabbed my suitcase full of wine and sweaters and caught a cab to the airport. I boarded a flight to Detroit, where one of my best friends picked me up and drove me to Ann Arbor, after which a weekend full of friends, turkey, pies, great wine (and gin and port), and driving tours of Michigan ensued.

Since then, I've donated something like $20 in the form of coins and occasional dollar bills to agreeable buskers on subway platforms. (I'm especially partial to accordion players.) I used to find plenty of time to volunteer in my spare time, but haven't managed even an hour of community service within the last 12 months. Most years, I'm able to eke out a donation or two to my favorite nonprofits, but I've reserved this year's cash flow for the expense of moving into my own apartment and buying the requisite furnishings for a single-person household.

Now, all of a sudden, it's late November again, and despite my desire for a new pair of boots and a coffee table for my living room, I'm struck by the urge to scrounge up a charitable donation that's become so well-timed to the holiday season. Am I a bad person for having such inconsistent motivation to help others? Am I the only one who's so lazy during the other 10 months of the year? I'd like to think that everyone else is a better Good Samaritan than I am, but something tells me I'm not unique in my start/stop pattern of giving/non-giving.

Droves of Americans experience a particular urge to help others around the holidays -- at least partially, I suspect -- in order to assuage our guilt over the abundance of food, drink, gifts, travel, and indulgences that we enjoy from Thanksgiving through New Year's. In the high season of holiday cheer, we feel especially badly about anyone who finds themselves alone, cold, or hungry, so we toss a one-time donation at the problem and feel a little less badly about our own good fortune.

Of course, something is better than nothing, but this year I started wondering why people like me don't feel motivated to give back during the rest of the year. Am I just a privileged brat who lacks an ounce of genuine altruism and only has an interest in "helping" the less fortunate to make myself feel better? Or are philanthropic efforts a privilege in and of themselves? (I certainly can't afford to place bids at charity auctions, or buy high-priced tickets and formal gowns for fundraising galas.)

Calling philanthropy a rich-person's endeavor would make me feel better, but I actually do know people within my socio-economic bracket who find time for volunteerism, room in their budget for regular charity donations (fewer pairs of boots?), and save enough headspace for a considerable social consciousness. (At one time, I managed to do all of the above things myself.) Are people who work a weekly volunteer shift inherently better than those of us who don't? Does it take a special kind of good-natured character to maintain a commitment to helping others for longer than it takes to click the "donate" button online?

To find out whether I'm a selfish slacker or just a typical American, I spoke with Karen Trella, a fundraising consultant and the Development Director for Urban Pathways in New York City, a nonprofit human services agency that provides temporary, low-cost housing, job training, and substance abuse counseling to homeless New Yorkers. Trella confirmed my suspicion that this is a time of year when both donations and volunteerism spike, but she also reassured me that holiday-giving habits do not indicate inferior character:

"One of the major reasons people give so much during the holidays is that this is when they're thinking of getting together with family and friends, which evokes a warmer, more loving feeling and gets them thinking about how lucky they are and how much other people don't have," Trella says. She also insists that people are generally willing and excited to help others, and that they do so more during the holidays simply because there's greater opportunity -- and not because we're selfishly trying to justify our own indulgences.

"People would love to volunteer, but they don't necessarily know what the opportunities are -- I get inquiries all the time from people who want to do something but don't know what to do -- so people are thrilled to find out about opportunities during the holidays. The opportunity isn't in front of them most of the time, but you see more of it this time of the year, because it's something the press picks up. Corporations that have their own calendar of volunteer and donation initiatives spark plenty of interest, even during non-holiday times; when people are reminded at other times of the year, just like during the holidays, they jump on board."

Trella's optimism about the generosity of people soothed my fears that holiday giving is just a self-serving present under the tree. Most people are ready and willing to give back, if they're just given a reminder and an opportunity to act. The bigger issue, Trella says, is: "people, corporations, and organizations just need to know there's an opportunity in order to make a difference." Providing constant opportunity and exposure to social issues isn't an easy task, but it's also not impossible -- just watch an episode of Good Morning America this time of year; there's plenty of time to remind viewers about holiday giving in between their children's gift guides and celebrity performances.

So are holiday givers just a bunch of guilty privileged snobs who don't really care about the less fortunate? No. (Hooray, I'm not going to hell! For that, anyway.) Much like the surge of generous (tax-deductible) stock donations that flood in at the end of the year, holiday giving is partly a product of convenience, but it's entirely positive for its beneficiaries. "It's not a negative thing; it's just reality," says Trella. If any selfish, guilt-offsetting motivations do lurk behind our seasonal generosity, no problem: We should just remind ourselves during other times of the year how great our turkey-day donations actually made us feel, regardless of our personal motivations. Imagine how much more fun your Fourth of July barbecue would be if you independently volunteered at a soup kitchen the day before?

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