Practice stealthy acts of kindness.

At this time of year everyone wakes up to the fact that need exists in the United States. Everywhere you look are food drives, gift drives, coat drives.

Here’s a news flash: Need exists all year long, not just in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong: I love it when people do nice things. I just wish it weren’t so holiday-specific. Pardon my grinchiness, but I think some of these once-a-year volunteers aren’t doing it for the homeless, the seniors or the kids. They’re doing it to make themselves feel good.

I’m reminded of the calls and personal entreaties I used to get in my newspapering days: This youth group or that professional organization would be handing out gloves or putting together food bags, so could the paper send a photographer?

Although I was always polite, these requests made me feel cranky as hell. The groups asking for coverage wanted recognition for doing the right thing. If they were really about doing the right thing, shouldn’t they do it without requesting a shooter?


Santa-like stealth

Here’s a ready-made resolution for you come Dec. 31: I will do at least one kind thing a week in 2011, and I will do it anonymously.

That’s right: No publicity. No one can know. If you’re caught in the act, then you have to make up for it by doing something else that week, except you have to be even more stealthy.

It doesn’t have to be for an organized charity, mind you. Suppose you notice a guy holding the sign for a mattress store’s going-out-of-business sale. You can bet that he isn’t making big bucks to do it. Ask if you can bring him some lunch.

Or suppose you have a relative or friend who is struggling financially. See if you can make an anonymous payment against her utilities, a doctor’s bill or even rent (if you know the landlord to be honest as well as close-mouthed).

You could also mail a grocery gift card or a money order, using the person’s own address as the return address. Ask someone else to address the envelope so your writing won’t be recognized, and send it from a nearby town so the postmark is different.

On a couple of occasions I’ve gone so far as to mail my donations to a faraway friend, who re-mails them. The recipients might (or might not) have suspected it was me, but they know I don’t live in Iowa.

Kindness toward strangers

Got a few bucks to spare? Try helping in ways like these:

Buy socks whenever they’re on sale; homeless shelters almost always need them.

Find out what kind of coffee they serve at the senior center and leave a few cans of their favorite bean on the back step.

Drop off a case of toilet paper at the homeless shelter.

Give a few books of stamps to a neighborhood nonprofit, an arts group or any other low-budget organization that needs to do mailings.

Take diapers to the family shelter.

Go to a nursing home or adult group home and ask if there are residents who don’t have extended families. Find out what they need, then provide it.


Giving on a shoestring

Even if your budget is tight you may find ways you can help. Such as:

Starting in mid-July, stock up on school-supply loss leaders (5-cent notebook paper!) and deliver them to schools.

Donate free-after-rebate toiletries to shelters.

Done with your magazines? Ask if it’s OK to leave them in places where people congregate: laundromat, food bank, voc rehab office.

When asked what you want for your birthday, suggest a donation to the local food bank.

If you walk past a parking meter that’s about to expire, drop in a coin.

Offer items on the Freecycle network.

Be a coupon fairy: If the person in line ahead of you is buying something you have coupons for, hand over a few.

Getting a soft drink or a candy bar? When the quarter falls into the change slot, leave it there for the next person to find.

If a neighbor is elderly or a shut-in, shovel his or her sidewalk late at night or early in the morning when you won’t be seen. Remember: You’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do, not because you want applause for doing it.


In giving, you get

Doing cranberry-sauce duty at the homeless shelter’s Thanksgiving buffet is a nice thing to do. But it doesn’t give you a free pass for the rest of the year.

No, you don’t have to give to others. But you should.

It makes you realize how lucky you are, i.e., you have something to give. An hour of your time, a pound of coffee or a nice big check will make a difference in someone else’s life.

When I was at my lowest point financially I nonetheless gave $20 a month to my church’s community service programs (rent assistance, emergency pantry, et al.). The donation made me realize that no matter how dire my situation was, I still had options. In other words, I could donate $20 a month and still keep the lights on at my own place.

How about it, readers: What are some of the ways that you give? Do you ever do it anonymously in addition to any donations for which you take a tax write-off?

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  1. Budgeting in the Fun Stuff’s second blog, Crystal Clear Thoughts http://www.crystalclearthoughts.com/ has a weekly kindness challenge that fits in well with this idea– you can always post what you’ve done anonymously if you don’t want credit.

    Personally I’m big on the tax write-off. Though we do give to daycare teachers (and that isn’t tax deductible) and we’re putting in for relatives’ 529s which isn’t tax deductible for us.

    I remember when I was little thinking you had to be good and do nice things on Sundays. (Not that you shouldn’t be good the other 6 days, but make an extra effort on Sunday.) That’s not such a bad idea. I used to do volunteer tutoring during the school year but since having my own children, we’ve been substituting money for time.

    With all the Christmas focus on Santa Claus and giving gifts, I’ve been telling my kid stories about St. Nicholas, who did many of his early good deeds, like giving golden dowries, in secret (though someone must have found out for them to become legends!) It’s a little difficult with a preschooler because so many of the stories involve slavery, children cut into little pieces being brought back to life, and so on.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Nicole: I love the tax write-off, too, and I do contribute to a bunch of nonprofits all year long. But I also work in the small acts regularly, too. It can be as simple as giving $5 bill instead of $1 to the person selling the “Real Change” homeless newspaper.
      Contributing to a 529 — now THAT is a gift. Yay, you!
      Thanks for the link to the kindness challenge. I’ll check that out.

  2. I really like this. However, I sent an anonymous grocery store gift card to a struggling friend/co-worker only to find out she was frightened that she was being stalked by a man out of her past.

    Seriously, I finally had to tell her it was me, to relieve her mind.

    I’m hoping this was a very unusual circumstance as I quite like anonymous giving.

  3. I’ve got a few ideas I want to try out this coming year. Small things that I don’t have to worry about getting a tax write-off slip. Thanks for the challenge!

  4. Donna,
    I like your ideas in this post. I may just have to do one or two for 2011 and way before the holidays! :)!

  5. Great suggestions! My supervisor buys a ton of school supplies for our hourly employees (who are usually making minimum wage or close to it) at the beginning of the school year and has their manager deliver them.

    I will add one thing though – I don’t think it’s fair to say that any organization or group of people who calls the newspaper is doing something only for recognition. They could also want to call attention to their organization or charity in hopes that it will bring in more donations, volunteers, etc. Just my two cents.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Red: I never minded publicizing collections for charity. It’s the folks who’d call in and say stuff like “Come take a photo of our Cub Scouts giving out scarves to the homeless” who would get on my nerves. They seemed to think their kids “deserved” some kind of publicity. Nice example to set for the li’l rascals: Do the right thing when it makes you look good in print.
      That’s right up there with the canned-food drive at my daughter’s high school. The homeroom that collected the most got a pizza party. Honest. My daughter wrote a column about that at the time.
      Thanks for reading.

  6. Every time I feel at my lowest about my family situation (not infrequently, I assure you), and every time I have a good bump at work (less so), I paypal a donation to the needy people that I know of under my blogging pseudonym. They don’t know who I am so it’s anonymous and it’s a good reminder that no matter how bad life feels, there are always those who have as rough or rougher conditions to weather so as long as we can still help someone else, it’s not so bad after all.

    A bit selfish, maybe, but not the worst thing in the world.

  7. Mailing a grocery card with their address as the return address is an excellent idea!

  8. Holly Samlan

    Since I am unemployed, my goal (except for sharing coupons) will be once a month and generally I steer clear of the Thanksgiving-New Year time frame as so many others participate then.

    I just may do my donations for my adult kids/spouses/Dads bdays. This would be an automatic reminder to myself in jan, Feb, July, Aug and Nov.

    I do not know what other states allow but here in IL food stamps cannot be used for personal care items, OTC medications, cleaning supplies or laundry soap so I am going to go for stocking up on these when they are free/cheap at Target, CVS, and/or Walgreens.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Holly Samlan: Food stamps can’t be used for anything but food, period. That’s why I suggested the same thing, i.e., stocking up on free-after-rebate stuff and donating it. I drop off stuff at a social service agency in North Seattle, at the Nickelsville tent city and at my church’s emergency pantry.
      I like the idea of giving donations in lieu of birthday gifts. Hint: Heifer International has “shares” in animals that cost as little as $10.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  9. Thanks! You touch on one of my pet peeves: the essential hypocrisy of holiday charitable giving.

    Now, it’s nice that people are giving SOME time and I don’t begrudge charities for what they receive at this time of year. It’s just that there’s something askew with the idea that once a year we can consider other people, and then forget it the rest of the time.

    Love the “stealth giving” idea. I try to do something similar…sometimes feel a little left out when the spotlight glows lovingly on a person or organization that makes a publicity stunt out of giving.

  10. When my daughter joined Brownies, I knew I was going to buy the uniform and the whole shebang. But, I felt somehow I was selfish for wanting my daughter to have it all. So, I asked the principal of the school to choose a little girl who could not afford Brownies. We would buy her everything our child had and pay her dues for one year. The CATCH: it all had to be anonymous. The child the principal chose had a mother who would go along with all of it except that she wanted to know who was so interested in her child. I did meet her and she did agree to take the gift and not tell anyone. My husband, the minister, remarked, “What is the point of charity if we don’t get credit?” I later found out he “confided” our secret to everyone who would listen and made them promise not to tell me he betrayed my trust and our agreement. Oh, he is an ex-husband now!

  11. I gave a Christmas Challenge last July on my blog.

    Or, you can click on my name and look for July posts.

    The tutoring can occur all year long. I have to take this about 50 miles, so I keep all it in a box for transport in the fall or at Christmas. This year, I gave it to my friend at her antique shop where we had Thanksgiving dinner. She was not going to save until Christmas.

  12. I was a broke grad student, spending judiciously at the grocery, checking out when I heard the cashier behind me, the next aisle over. She informed someone that they did not have enough food stamps for all they had on their receipt. Nosy me wondered who it was–mother, foolish person with junk food (my opinion only and none of my business!), or an elderly person.

    Two retarded people who walked the streets continually were putting back potatoes and keeping potato chips, putting back the cheese and keeping the Cheetos. putting back orange juice and keeping the Coke. I told the cashier I would pay for all they had rung up.

    The amount was less than $8, but it was about $7 more than was in my checking account. I accepted their muttered thanks and the gratitude other customers expressed and hurried off, worrying how to cover the check. I sold something I owned.

    Two weeks later, they were approaching a boutique I was leaving. I remade and made earrings and altered clothing in exchange for earrings…lol…my Earring Period. Seriously, I did get paid but also just wanted earrings sometimes.

    A day or two later, the owner told me they told her what I did. She said she told them that of all the people who could not afford to help anyone with money, it was me, and I sacrificed to help them. Whatever!

    So, fifteen years later, I admit it once in awhile. I don’t think I have told anyone who knows me in real life…lol.

  13. Here’s a timely article about a secret santa: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2037877,00.html?hpt=T2

    Thanks for this post. I try to do little things often (guilty of feeding expiring/expired meters). One thing I saw recently at my Publix was someone had gone around taping coupons to their relevant products. I thought that was so neat 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      @MutantSuperModel: I’ve seen coupons left next to products, but never taped on! I like it.

  14. Stephanie Loder

    We’ve talked about this holiday craziness since we were kids, Donna! Not like it’s anything new, but it’s still something other people don’t remember — I just finished editing a 25 inch story about all the places to give, who is collecting what, oh, and of course the dealines! But come Dec. 25 — well, that’s a wrap! There’s not a follow up or any intention to keep the need in the news. One woman said her organization in New Jersey “”Got zip” this year from a large corporation who was instead protecting their own assets. I suggested we start covering the need all year round – and my editor looked at me like I was crazy.” You are on the money!

  15. With the exception of a recent matching donation that I did, I’ve always done all my giving anonymously, and I still continue to do most of it that way. Tax deductions really haven’t entered into it, because I think only once have I ever been able to itemize. I like the list of ideas here 🙂

  16. Remember you talking about collecting your change in a previous post? I built onto that post in my blog, mentioning a can I keep by the washer to hold change I find in the family pockets.
    I did the yearly count-up yesterday, added a $5 bill…and it came to a few pennies more than $45! It will be converted to two King Soopers gift cards, then sent anonymously to two of the women Husband works with. He knows firsthand they’re having difficulty paying their bills, and has wanted to help.
    Makes me feel wonderful, just thinking about it.

  17. Just to clear up the mention of “two retarded people.” …..These two were put into a mental institution in AL, clearly NOT where they belonged. They fell in love. He managed to get out with the help of a relative, I believe. Then, this man contacted the governor’s wife with the help of someone, and he told about the physical and mental abuse the woman, he, and others faced everyday at this state-run institution. Lo and Behold! George Wallace’s wife responded. Mental institutions were reformed here, all because of this man. The whole town knew their story. The reason I mentioned they were retarded was that I did not think they could really comprehend or would be taught about nutrition, so I helped to get the good food they needed since they were keeping junk food. If you saw, met, and talked with them, the retardation and poverty from whence they came would be evident. I was not using the label just to identify two poor people. I knew their whole story from others and from seeing them walking around town for about ten years. If you misunderstood my stance on their lives and abilities, I hope you understand now. They were truly heroes in this state. Everyone looked out for them, giving them rides in the rain, etc.

  18. I think that this is your best post. Your heart is wonderful and so is your spirit. I’m so proud to call you my friend.
    Have a wonderful holiday and I hope that Santa is good to you.

  19. Donna, thank you for your wonderful posts. I really enjoy reading and learning. Happy Holidays!

  20. Feeding an expired parking meter is illegal in some cities, which get more money from the tickets than from the meters. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t feed an expired meter to help someone out. Just be extra stealthy. 🙂

    PS. LOVE the post!

  21. I volunteer at a shelter all year and we get a huge number of people who want to help at Thanksgiving and Christmas- way more than can really be useful. We do not let people just come – when our volunteer slots are full- we suggest they volunteer in January -or later. Something that many shelters can use is laundry detergent- people are allowed to do their laundry for free but we need to give them detergent. Also you might check with whatever shelter you plan to donate to and find out what they can use. Some shelters would like new bottles of vitamins, tylenol, advil(store brand , of course, but the brand names are easier to spell), tampons or sanitary napkins -all of which are distributed on an as needed basis.

  22. Victoria Fox

    I feel the same way about boasting when it comes to giving. I get frosted over when I see it and make a big production over it.

    I’m right with you on doing something once a week, though. I love sneakin’:)

  23. A quick note: food banks need food in the summer. During the school year, children will eat one or two meals each day at school, but in the summer, they need to get all of their food at home, which is, for many families, problematic.

    I work in a school in a very impoverished neighborhood. Each holiday, I ask the social worker in care of the homeless population (yes, there are enough of them that we have a social worker just for them) if I can make some food boxes. She knows where the food comes from, but the families who receive them don’t, nor does anyone else on campus except maybe the secretary (who would see me come in with boxes).

    She’s also sent out emails asking for items for families that have just moved into a home of some sort (usually an apartment) and have no furniture, blankets, cookware, dishes, etc. I have donated furniture to those.

    No write-offs for any of it, but that’s not why I do it.

  24. I love this! Money is super-tight for us at this point and I have started “couponing” to make the ends come closer to meeting. Whenever I get a small “stock” of free/cheap extras, I pack them up for a young family I know who are super-awesome and struggling through tough times. It’s not anonymous (can’t leave it outside their door or it would be stolen!) but I’m so happy I can help them out. Going to challenge myself to find at least one more person to help out each week, anonymously, in whatever way I can find.

    If only everyone did this….what a wonderful world it would be!!


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