Not Just for the Holidays
Florida organizer rejects new holiday volunteers, encourages year-round service
As the holidays progress, many charitable causes see an influx of calls from individuals and families who’ve caught the spirit of the season. Soup kitchens, shelters, and resource centers field questions from people who want to volunteer – to remind themselves and their children to be grateful for what they have. When the New Year has come, when the tinsel is taken down and the turkey leftovers are thrown out of the refrigerator, these seasonal helpers – though they might intend to continue their charitable efforts – return to their lives. Service organizations go back to searching out volunteers for their often-understaffed day-to-day activities.
“They essentially wanted to use the holidays as a poverty zoo. A type of tourism where they could go and observe disparity from behind the safe space of a serving line and then leave feeling better about their circumstances.” Nathan Monk, transitional shelter manager, Florida
A few years ago, author and housing security advocate Nathan Monk was managing a transitional shelter in Florida. He took the usual deluge of phone calls from potential holiday helpers. He wrote about the experience for The Charity Institute.
“Dozens of people were looking for places to donate food, resources, and their time,” Monk wrote. “A few weeks before this, we were struggling to find help and now, as the holidays approached, there seemed to be no end in sight of people who wanted to give their time for a few hours on a random Thursday. Now, one might argue that all of us in the nonprofit world should be grateful for the sudden outpouring of support. But as I fielded the calls, I started to have some suspicions about intentions …
“As the calls continued on, it became clear that many of these folks weren’t thinking about the clients we served, rather their own particular interest. They essentially wanted to use the holidays as a poverty zoo. A type of tourism where they could go and observe disparity from behind the safe space of a serving line and then leave feeling better about their circumstances. This isn’t a blanket judgment either, these were their own words.”
Based on Monk’s observation, the organization’s leadership made a difficult call: They would not accept new volunteers for holiday events or birthday functions for the children who were staying there. Only volunteers who had a history of service with the organization would be selected during such times.
Some of the people who reached out over the holidays were disappointed or even angry. But Monk found that some asked whether they could volunteer at other times or in other ways.
The dignity of the shelter’s guests was respected, and the organization was able to staff some less-popular shifts throughout the year due to this adjustment in policy.
“It isn’t easy to change the way we’ve been doing things for so long,” Monk wrote. “For many families, going to a soup kitchen or shelter during the holidays is a long-standing tradition. But not all traditions are good, helpful, or healthy, even if they are well-intentioned. I think for a long time, our society hasn’t even thought to ask the question of how our giving might make the receiver feel. But slowly more and more organizations are adopting the philosophy that receiving help shouldn’t hurt or leave scars. It should be part of the healing process. That means that some of the way we’ve been doing things is going to have to change.”
Monk ended with a call for those moved to help others to incorporate such practices into their lives. Charity and service shouldn’t be seasonal.
Monk’s full story can be found online at Charityinstitute.com.