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:

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM Going Private To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 8:46 AM The Vintage eBay Find I Wore to My Sentencing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 7:30 AM Say Hello to Our Quasi-Moon, 2014 OL339
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.