Thinking about holiday giving

Its that time of the year. Now that Giving Tuesday has passed, many non profits are turning to the US mail to make their appeals for end of the year donations. It is a custom that I presume started back in the days when many of us could use donations to lower our tax burden. Those deductions have gone away for most of us now, but the concept of making year end gifts persists. Perhaps there is a connection with the holidays that inspire a spirit of giving. Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” warns of the dangers of being too selfish and stingy.

Many appeals come our way from institutions and groups that are doing good work and whose work we would like to support. One the one hand we have practiced disciplines of giving and probably give away a larger percentage of our income that many of our peers. On the other hand, we are not wealthy people by some standards. At least our capacity to give is not unlimited. So, like so many other areas of our lives, we have to make decisions and choose which areas of giving are most important. Those choices are not based solely upon the worthiness of the recipients. There are many worthy causes that we choose not to support. By planning our giving and combining our gifts we find ways to have some small impact with the donations that we make.

As one who is often the fund-raiser and frequently asks others to consider donations, I have learned to respect the decisions of others. Despite the fact that we think we know others, they might have financial circumstances that are less visible. Past debts, dependent children, unseen health challenges and a host of other factors can radically alter a family’s finances. I have found that the best way to raise funds, whether it be for the church or an area arts agency is to be completely honest about what you are going to do with the money, keep your promises, and trust donors to make their own decisions.

I know that in the church donations are not evenly spread among the members. Some give very little, others give large amounts. I make it a practice not to see the checks from church members and not to access the information about who has given what amount. I feel that such information might tempt a pastor to be less than fair in the distribution of time. I never want the church to be a place where influence can be bought and sold. However, I read financial statements closely and study trends and have noticed unexpected changes in income following funerals and other significant life events. Being a cash business, our congregation is not in danger of getting in trouble. We try to live graciously with what our members offer and not to live beyond our means.

All of this information and experience, however, does not give me a ready answer to the letters that are coming into our household at this time of year. Last night there was a heartfelt appeal that included a hand-written note from one of the leaders of the organization who we’ve known since our high school days. The note was genuine and honest. The need was clearly outlined in the letter. I have a high level of confidence that the donations will be used exactly as the letter outlines. The organization has an all volunteer board and there is virtually no overhead. It is likely that someone donated the envelopes and stamps used to send out the letters. Money invested in the cause is unlikely to be wasted. On the other hand, I know that the amount I can afford to give is insufficient to meet the need. I know how gifts combine to bring about miracles. I know the value of small gifts in all fund-raising efforts. I don’t mean to discount my capacity to make a gift. Still I paused. I set the letter aside for an opportunity to think and to consider how I am going to respond. The person who wrote the note and the board from whom the letter came deserve my consideration.

There are appeals that make a quick trip to the recycling bin in our house. Causes that were important to my mother continue to appeal to her even though she died eight years ago. Since our home was her last address, we receive appeals from institutions she supported. A few have become causes to which I donate. Others continue to send their appeals simply because I haven’t even bothered to inform them that she is no longer living.

It strikes me that many appeals are seeking impulse donations. Like the scouts in the entryway of the grocery store or the bell ringer out front, they are after small amounts of discretionary money. A letter that comes to our home probably is not expecting a thousand dollar response. They are seeking the amount of money that can be given by reaching into one’s pocket or checkbook for a small amount. I am not enamored with the concept of the red kettle fund raising of the Salvation Army. It is too close to begging for me and the institution doesn’t need to beg. It raises millions of dollars through other means. Furthermore our church never stands on the street corner and asks other people to fund our mission. Still, I’ll toss a few coins in the kettle from time to time. The group does good work with the money they have.

Wednesday morning, I was speaking to a man who was carrying all of his possessions. He probably slept in a shelter or perhaps on the street the previous night. He asked me if I had any spare change I could give him. I reached into my pocket and had none. It is more likely that the previous day’s change was in a dish on the headboard of my bed than in the Salvation Army kettle, but I responded honestly that I didn’t have any change. I could have reached into another pocket and pulled out a bill. I didn’t. I was on my way to meet a friend at a coffee shop. I offered to buy him a cup of coffee if he would come inside with me. He declined. The conversation was cordial and friendly. Later I sat sipping my tea and facing the window looking at the street where the conversation had occurred and wondered if I had failed to help a person in need.

I’m trying to be deliberative in my responses to appeals for funds this year. They may contain opportunities to help - opportunities that I don’t want to pass up.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!