Even a month into the new year, those of us who work at philanthropic nonprofits are still recovering from the elation of the holidays and the desolation that can follow. The holidays create this strange phenomenon in the nonprofit world—a rush of individuals seeking meaningful volunteer opportunities. We’re bombarded with calls from folks who want to help—four to five times what we get the rest of the year. And nonprofits gear up for the season because, let’s be honest, we’re wired to shamelessly promote and showcase our programs and services in hopes that it will result in prospective or continued donations.
But right after the holidays, the phones go quiet until next year.
I don’t want to lambaste individuals who only get involved at the holidays. I am happy that people’s sense of community and charity are sparked at all; their efforts are felt and appreciated by those who need extra help. And there are a whole lot of people who need the help: One in seven Las Vegans is without a job, one in eight households struggles with hunger, and we have the highest suicide rate among seniors in the nation.
There are inspiring examples, though, of people who serve our community all year round. At Catholic Charities, where I work, we have more than 900 senior volunteers who provide services for isolated homebound seniors, mentor at-risk youths and help various community organizations. They gave 250,000 hours of service last year—and many of them have their own health or financial issues. They do it because they love what they do. We hope that young, able-bodied Las Vegans, who mostly don’t volunteer, can follow their lead.
One of the difficult things for potential volunteers and donors to understand is that giving is most effective when it matches an actual need. Routinely during the holidays, we get calls from people wanting to help and telling us exactly what they plan on doing, even if it is not suitable for our programs or our clients. We tactfully try to educate them on what our clients really need and, without seeming ungrateful, we gently encourage them to refocus their efforts. This does not always work, and more often than not we end up with items that are not in demand. In an effort to make space and get items to appropriate individuals, groups, or other organizations, we spend extra time orchestrating and distributing, diverting resources from our core tasks.
When giving hits the mark, though, the results are deeply moving. In all truth, my senior client, Sally, does not care if the pink bathrobe she requested through an Angel Tree project was somebody’s only charitable contribution all year. But if the person who gave this donation saw Sally’s sheer delight and excitement when we handed her the only gift she received this Christmas, he or she would be touched and heartbroken that something as simple as a new article of clothing could bring so much joy to an isolated senior. And I have no doubt that that person would have asked himself or herself, “What more can I do?”
And that’s what kills me. For every Sally, there are another 50 seniors who are dying in the shadows for attention and care, and if we could leverage the sensitivity and sympathies that seem to be heightened during the holiday season, we would stand a greater chance at stamping out need. If more people felt compelled to volunteer, Nevada might be ranked higher than 50th among the states for percent of residents who volunteer. This very culture might put us on the path to solidifying the sense of community that so many residents claim does not exist in Las Vegas.
When we give, we honor our vulnerabilities as people and celebrate the strength of the human spirit. There is a Native American legend about an old Cherokee leader who tells his grandson about a battle inside of people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee replied, “The one you feed.” So as we work our way into the heart of 2011, I challenge you to get involved in our community, to find an issue or a cause that you are passionate about. Find out which organizations are working on that issue. Call them up. Ask them how you can make a difference.