After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the American Red Cross was heavily criticized for hanging onto some of the money that was donated to help the families of the fallen. Its leadership replied that the public's response was very good, with a great many donations coming in, and it seemed like a good idea to set something aside for the inevitable drought of charity that would follow.
While it made a degree of sense, it didn't make a lot of fans. But I suspect that every Christmas there are a bunch of charitable organizations that at least understand the sentiment.
This week, I've been reporting on what's different about the holidays for people who are homeless and the organizations that serve them. And one thing I've heard echoes back to that point. It turns out that what's significantly different is the firehose-size flow of love and support that Christmas tends to brings not just to organizations for the homeless, but to other charities as well. By January, much of the actual giving will have died back to a trickle. While each group has dedicated and hard-working staffers, lots of places struggle year-round to keep up with demand.
Savvy operators, while grateful and aware that the bounty springs from a desire to make sure that everyone has a great Christmas, have an almost overwhelming urge to also make sure that everyone has adequate other days, as well. Sometimes, that depends on hoarding some of what came in, so that it can be used another day when people are less charitable or maybe just less apt to seek out the needs in their community.
When I asked for an example of a need that might go unmet, more than one provider suggested that toilet paper and cleaning supplies won't last — that they will be desperately needed and will cost a lot to replenish when the rolls provided by a generous community now are gone later. That's not a worry for the Inn Between, which provides hospice and respite for folks who are homeless. Staff are cheerful hoarders. "We rarely run out of TP," director Kim Correa told me. "We make it last as best we can throughout the year."
Hoarding is a survival instinct. Individuals do it when they've lived a long time without something. Foster parents sometimes tell of children who come into their care and can't believe the amount of food that's available. They've lived with want, not plenty, and don't trust the stash will hold up. Many of them sneak food and hide it in their rooms for later, when the food supply is gone, as they suspect will happen.
It's true of time, as well. During the holidays, service clubs, families and individuals start looking for something to do to help someone else who's in dire need. They choose activities that play to their own talents, which makes great sense. But the people who run the charities that I talked to this week would like the caring public to know that they'll still be there next month or next spring.
And they'll still need help.
No organization I talked to wants to discourage the December giving. They just want people to come back another time as well — or better yet, on a regular basis — to provide cookies, to drop off toilet paper and to spend some time.
It's a bit like shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor. It's a great thing to do, but it is very unlikely that the snow will fall just once or the individual who's trapped inside will for some reason cease to need the assistance.