My mailbox is overflowing. Not with cards and gifts from friends. Not even with holiday shopping flyers. The majority of my mail this time of year is in the form of appeals. Charity organizations send me plea after plea for money, food, or clothing to help those less fortunate.

My husband and I do make several donations to charities this time of year, but every year, the list of charities that asks for our help grows longer. I look at all the options and get paralyzed by a memory from college.

I was riding the subway in Chicago. A man got into our car and walked down it handing out little cards. I took one to be polite. It had the alphabet on it, with the gestures used for each letter in the fingerspelling version of American sign language. On the back, I read that the bearer was deaf and would like a contribution. A dollar would be enough.

I was reaching for my wallet when my boyfriend stopped me. “It’s a scam,” he said. “He’ll spend the money on drugs.”

I didn’t know what to do.

It had never occurred to me that someone might pretend to be in need just to make money. The whole process seemed so humiliating for the begger that I couldn’t imagine anyone doing it who wasn’t in real trouble.

I let the man get off the subway car at the next stop with nothing but the card he had originally given to me. To this day, I don’t know what I should have done. I could have given him money, but I was conflicted because I had no way to tell if he really needed it or what he would do with it. I felt bad not giving him anything, but I would have felt just as bad if I had.

The same bind comes up now as I look at the stack of mail the charities have sent us, asking for our help. How much of my money will go to those who really need it, and how much will be spent paying administrators and trying to raise even more money? Just because a charity is well-known doesn’t mean it spends the money well.

I do what I can. I look online for information about how charities spend their money and hope it’s accurate. Then I write checks for those I think are worthwhile.


But there are no websites to tell me if the guy on the corner holding the hand-written sign that reads “Family of 4 Out of Food” is legitimate or not. I drive by, full of shame, wondering if I should have stopped and bought him a meal, knowing that I wouldn’t feel any better even if I had.

Do you struggle to show compassion in our cynical and untrusting world? Tell us your story.

14 thoughts on “The Challenge of Giving: Are You Kind Or A Fool?”

  1. Hi Kit,
    Don’t be so hard on yourself. I, too, have had the same concerns about donating to all the charities that bombard me via snail mail, telephone and TV. I found a site named Charity Navigator that evaluates charities and gives them a rating. This has helped me get a better understanding of the charities asking for my money. I have stopped giving to a few charities based upon their evaluations. As for the people on the street corners or the grocery store parking lots, it’s a toss up. Sometimes I give a dollar or two and sometimes I don’t. When I do give, I just ask God to bless my act of giving and to take care of the rest. Most of the time I choose to donate to local groups vs. national groups – take care of home first.
    Merry Christmas to all!

    1. Your strategy sounds like a good one. We did pick our charities for the year, so this task is off my list for a while.

  2. I decided against donating to any charity solicitors back in college, just because they were everywhere, and they were pushy, and this was before the internet could tell me whether or not they were a real charity. Instead, I budget some money when I can to go a charity I know I want to support (my employer also helpfully siphons off part of my paycheck and sends it to a charity I chose with a matching donation). Like Julianne said, Charity Navigator (.org) is a great place to check the charities’ financials out. So long as I’m on a budget, I can only donate so much, and I want to know that I’m sending it where I want it to go, not just “impulse donating.” The fliers from other charities I get in the mail go straight into the recycle bin. I know I’m doing the best I can. People will always need help, but there’s only so much a person can do.

    1. Impulse donating used to be my problem, but we make our donations once a year and decide then who will get our money and how much we’ll spend. I’ll definitely check out that website. Thanks!

  3. If it’s a person, I like to give in ways that aren’t monetary: take a purse or bag and filling it with toiletries, giving a bag of food that wouldn’t be hard to eat on the streets (not requiring a lot of cooking or anything.), blankets, socks. If you feel uncomfortable giving cash directly there’s other ways to help. I think there probably are scam artists out there, which is a shame, because then people like you who want to help are confused.

  4. As someone living with a severe medical condition, I thought I’d offer a different perspective on the charity dollar. I am a well-qualified marketing manager who through no fault of my own developed this disease and I don’t receive a cent from the government and rely on my husband and parents for support. Virtual all my doctors’ fees are free but my medications are over $1000 per year. My husband receives a carer payment of around $30.00 a week for me and a $600.00 bonus once a year. We have two children with medical issues. Despite my own health issues, I largely care for hem which can be intensive at times. Because my husband is my carer, I can’t qualify as a carer for them. My husband is on a good income but it evaporates like most. I am a member of Muscular Dystrophy association and they provide camps for members, which really change lives giving people with very limited mobility the chance to extend themselves. They have retreats for carers, who care for people with very high needs and without donations these things would never happen. Those donations change lives for people who have no cure or magic wand but re starting to live longer and better lives through medical research, which is again funded by donations. I should also add that I lead a really good life most of the time because although my disease is severe, there is treatment. A close friend has Motor Neurone Disease and has very little treatment and is starting to endure terrible suffering culminating in a dreadful end. I speak as someone who has appreciated the benefits of such donations, to keep directing them to registered charities, particularly those helping lesser known conditions where there is little support. Every dollar makes a difference! Many thanks and Merry Christmas xx Rowena

    1. Thanks for sharing your story. Many people don’t realize the challenges of living with a chronic illness, or the importance of the charities that help those people. It’s good to remember there is something we can do to help others and that even a little help can make a positive difference in someone’s life.

      1. It is so important. We forget that any of us can end up is a desperate spot any time, even through no fault of our own and this realization at least shows the importance of giving to me. I can’t give financially but I’ve volunteered at the kids’ school doing the photography for 7 years. While there might be the rare child who doesn’t want their photo taken, many are real show offs and love it…jump in front of me. It’s a small thing I can which helps me feel worthwhile and cheers up the kids and helps them feel noticed.

      2. How great that you’ve found a way to use your skills to help others. I should do more of that. In some ways, it seems less problematic than blindly giving money.

  5. I find that I am conflicted as well with the homeless, I see. I know a few are simply panhandling and it makes it hard to determine when helping makes sense. I once gave $20 to a young women that I was sure was running a scam because I was worried about the young child that she had with her, but most of them, I try to give food instead of money since its can be so difficult to know – and I feel so guilty if I do nothing
    Have a peaceful holiday season.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles with this. I like the idea of giving food or clothes instead of money.

  6. As we drove through the streets of Toronto last week my father rolled down his window and gave a few dollars to a woman on the corner. How can you know, but we can’t go through life being so suspicious all the time, of every person. At the same time, we can’t be naive either. It’s hard. No easy answers, but we can’t allow ourselves to become overly cynical.

    1. I agree but it’s hard to know how to achieve it. I think you have to be willing to trust and to make mistakes.

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