Are holiday "adopt-a-family" programs a waste of my charitable giving?

Advice on how to make the world better.
Nov. 11 2009 11:07 AM

Christmas Confusion

Are holiday "adopt-a-family" programs a waste of my charitable giving?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Sandy,

I've always adopted a family for the holidays. But after reading your column for a while, I can't help but wonder whether this is really the best use of my limited charity dollars. What do you think?

—Margaret, San Jose, Calif.

Sandy:

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Well Margaret, with unemployment rates at a 26-year high, there will undoubtedly be more families in need this holiday season. And adopt-a-family programs, in which you anonymously purchase gifts and/or holiday meals for a child or whole family, are already hard at work soliciting donations.

Nearly 50 percent of charitable contributions are made between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not only is this a time when organizations conduct their annual appeals and individuals are looking for tax breaks—it's also a time when people feel particularly generous and caring. The holidays (ideally) bring out the best in us.

Gift giving during the holidays.
Is money given to a needy family for Christmas well-spent?

I know that I harp on efficiency, sustainability, and all those other nonprofit buzzwords. But no one donates because of an impressive overhead ratio or innovative organizational model. We donate because we care about a cause. In the case of adopt-a-family programs, we donate because we realize that the world isn't a fair place, and we want to help those in need. We also donate because it makes us feel good. And knowing you are giving a child a gift to open on Christmas morning has just about the highest fuzzy factor imaginable.

As with donating directly to individual panhandlers on the street, "adopting" a family may be something you choose to do even though you acknowledge that your dollars might give you more bang for your buck elsewhere. But as I cautioned with giving to the homeless, be honest with yourself that buying Christmas gifts isn't going to solve the problem—it's just a kind gesture that shows you care about those in your community. Now, that's a good thing, but it's not enough.

If you want to take your good intentions beyond the holidays and think more strategically about how to help, I recommend that you start by doing some research about poverty in your area. One in five San Mateo and Santa Clara County residents wouldn't be able to cover three months of basic living needs in the case of unemployment or emergency, an especially acute possibility in this economy. And with some of the highest living costs in the nation, even those above the federal poverty level struggle to make ends meet.

But there are some great service organizations in your area. One example is Family Supportive Housing, an organization that runs a shelter specifically for homeless families. Not only do they provide temporary housing for families in need, but they work to address the underlying causes of homelessness through case management, adult education, employment counseling, and other services for both children and adults.

If trying to do your own research into community services seems overwhelming, consider donating to your local community foundation. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation is working in conjunction with San Mateo County to help residents weather the recession. It also has an economic security fund that aims to address some of the systemic causes of poverty, including increasing the availability of financial education and asset-building programs for adults and attempting to curb predatory payday lending.

Adopt-a-family programs are a particularly powerful way to get children and families engaged in community outreach, and a great way to show our neighbors that we care. But whether or not you decide to adopt a family this year, remember that people need services year-round—not just during the holidays.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Sandy will try to answer it.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.