For three years, I worked in communications at a large social-service nonprofit in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. Tenderloin community members face tremendous obstacles: Many are homeless, live far below the poverty line and struggle with mental illness, addictive illness or both. When I worked there, one in four people served in our dining room was a homeless veteran.
Thanksgiving was always our busiest time of year.
Media arrived in droves to interview staff, guests and volunteers. Community members rushed to donate, driving up with trunkloads of frozen turkeys and large cash donations. So many people called asking to volunteer for serving the thousands of meals distributed in our dining room on Thanksgiving Day that we started a waiting list.
But come January, people inevitably forgot about us.
Like many nonprofits, we depended entirely on private donations and grants to serve our guests. Each winter, I stood in awe at the giant outpouring of generosity. But after “the season of giving,” people lost sight of the reality that people in their community were in need of continued support.
From October through December, giving is on the forefront of our minds. Holly wreaths line every drugstore aisle; commercials of hungry families, sick children and neglected animals compete for our charity dollars. We are primed for generosity.
But the truth is that our communities need help year-round. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, one in eight U.S. households is food-insecure. That’s 40 million Americans, including more than 12 million children. And the Housing and Urban Development Department reports that, on any given night, more than 550,000 Americans are homeless. In a society where one medical emergency would result in the majority of us going into debt or becoming financially insecure, we can recognize that at some point, we may be on the receiving end of community support.
There are many ways to ensure that we consistently show up. Here are a few.
Donate money regularly.
Most organizations have giving options that allow them to automatically deduct from your checking account or charge your credit card each month, even small amounts like $5. Nonprofits will know that they have regular donations coming in. You also could set up a reminder in your calendar to donate each month and pick the amount you are able to give at that time.
Reignite your passions and share your skills.
Maybe you’re a lifelong dancer and would love to teach with a youth arts organization, or an accountant looking for a way to contribute. Check out platforms such as VolunteerMatch, Idealist or CommunityShare, where you can match your skill sets and interests with community partners that need your support outside of the holiday season.
Enlist accountability partners.
Recruit a friend or family member to commit to a regular volunteer gig. Or call a community organization and ask what their most consistent needs are, then set a monthly date and gather a group to purchase, organize and distribute supplies. You can amplify what you’re doing on social media so those who cannot make it in person can contribute funds.
Be of service and encourage kids to do the same.
Involving children in community service not only shows them the value of generosity but also empowers them to take action and see themselves as contributors to positive change. Ask the kids in your life how they’d like to help.
Read the news. Then contribute locally.
Perhaps you felt called to action after reading about the challenges faced by asylum seekers, survivors of domestic violence, veterans with PTSD or teens without programming at underserved schools. In addition to large nonprofits doing work on the national or international scale, there are often smaller organizations serving the same communities in your own town. For example, while the ACLU supports the rights of immigrants throughout the country, in Arizona, where I live, there are many organizations that provide support to asylum seekers and their families. Figure out who is doing the work locally and donate your time and money.
Support organizations and efforts led by indigenous people.
The Thanksgiving narrative told in schools rarely acknowledges the painful legacy of colonialism and genocide. The #nothanks movement calls on non-Native Americans to take the money they would have spent on their Thanksgiving meal and instead support organizations such as the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, which is “dedicated to restoring, supporting, and developing indigenous food systems.”
Embed giving in your gratitude practice.
Studies over the past decade have revealed the benefit of a regular gratitude practice, such as keeping a daily list of five things you are grateful for or mindfulness meditation, in elevating mood and improving overall mental health. But what if you took your gratitude list one step forward with a plan to offer outward? Turn the page and write a second list of concrete ways to be generous each week.
Meet the people you want to help.
Longtime nonprofit leader Shelly Roder worked in the Tenderloin neighborhood at the same time I did. At St. Boniface Church, she co-founded and led the Gubbio Project, which, for 15 years, has provided space and sanctuary for homeless people to sleep. Staff also provides them with hygiene products and referrals to service providers. The program is run entirely on private donations.
Roder says the most important thing one can do to sustain long-term support is to “build relationships with people affected by the issue you want to influence.” She continues, “It’s easier to remember that people who are homeless have distinct needs in summer — water, sunscreen, lip balm — than in winter — socks, coats, hats, gloves — when you have a personal relationship with someone.”
Lisa M. O’Neill is a freelance writer whose work focuses on the intersection of popular culture, politics and social justice issues. She wrote this piece for The Washington Post.