While many people think of donating to established charitable organizations around Christmastime (or around the end of the tax year), other people like to make it more personal. But this is easier said than done. We all know what we would like or need for Christmas, but what about an entirely different family in an entirely different situation? Here are a few things to keep in mind, if your kind heart is leading you to help out a local family in need.
1. Beggars can't be choosers -- and that stinks. Gift cards or cash may seem like a dull and impersonal gift to you, but the gift of choice is a big deal to someone who rarely gets to shop for whatever they want. If you really want to pick something out, find a creative holder or topper for the cash or gift card envelope, and include a bunch of stocking stuffers.
2. A gift card to Amazon or another online store is a great present, but remember to include something extra for postage! Those extra few bucks may be more than a needy person can afford. It's especially hard to explain to a little kid, "I know it says we have $10 to spend, but we really only have $6.50 . . . "
3. Poverty doesn't rob people of individual taste or standards. If you've seen the kids at Mass wearing nothing but demure jumpers, the mom would probably not appreciate a huge collection of goth corsets and razor distressed skinny jeans your wayward daughter left behind when she became a roadie with a metal band. And the family that always turns up screaming and blaring music and running around like maniacs? Probably not the best recipient for your generous gift of a delicate set of frosted crystal angel figurines.
4. Keep in mind logistics. If they live in an isolated area without ready transportation, a Visa gift card might be better; if they live downtown near shops, maybe cash is the best option. Someone who lives in a tiny trailer probably doesn't want an adorable, life-sized stuffed gorilla, and somebody who lives in an urban high-rise probably won't get much use out of a shiny new bike.
5. Have a no-strings-attached policy. Don't say, "Here's some cash so you can get your son some decent boots," or "Make sure to buy those kids some fresh veggies, now!" If you're really concerned that your gift will be squandered entirely, you can always make arrangements to pay their gas or heating bill directly with the company, or offer a supermarket or gas station gift card. And yes, unscrupulous people can abuse even those gifts. You can always secretly assign a patron saint to guard your gift, and just hope for the best.
6. Either drop it by anonymously, or call ahead to make sure it's a good time to bring it by -- and then get yourself gone. Unless you're invited to stay, don't stick around, trying to get something in return for your charity. Many people desperately need help, but are desperately embarrassed about it. Let them have some dignity.
7. When in doubt, just ask. "What would you like for Christmas?" is a really awkward question. More useful is, "I'd love to drop off a gift for your nice family, and I have $50 [or whatever] to spend. What would be best: cash, a gift card, or clothes, or should I just surprise you?"
8. Give them some time. It might sound like a fairytale to show up on Christmas Eve and magically transform someone's holiday, but it would be even nicer for them know ahead of time that there will be some gifts under the tree! It's really tough for parents to know that they won't be able to give their kids anything, so give as early on as you can.
9. If you pick out gifts for someone's kids, put them in a gift bag (not wrapped), so the parents can check them out before Christmas morning. Include a gift receipt if you can. No matter how innocuous they seem to you, don't give gifts directly to kids without getting their parents' permission!
10. If you blow it, and end up hurting someone's feelings or doing the wrong thing, don't worry about it. You are a sweet and decent person to even think about other families, and most people will be truly grateful for your good intentions, even if the execution was less than ideal.
And if this list annoys you -- if you find yourself thinking, "Sheesh, who do these people think they are, anyway? They're not entitled to my time and money. What ever happened to gratitude?" -- well, maybe just take another route this year. Send your money to a local organized charity you trust, and don't put yourself in a bad frame of mind worrying about it. Giving is giving!