Japan was the first disaster I made a donation for this year. Somehow New Zealand completely slipped my mind. Perhaps because it wasn’t in the news much.

As usual, I made my donation to the Red Cross’s disaster-specific fund. They will use the funds for the response to the earthquake, except in the rare case where they receive more than they need. If that’s the case, they’ll apply it to the next disaster.

You can text a Red Cross donation to 90999 and the $10 charge will appear on your phone bill. I prefer to give more, so I visited the Red Cross  website.  I had to make an extra click to reach the donation selection page.  You can also donate through their Facebook page, your iTunes account, or on Amazon.

Initially, Doctors without Borders was not involved in the crisis, but they now have people on the ground operating small clinics in the hardest-hit area.  At this time, they’re not taking Japan-specific donations, but you can always donate to this worthy cause in support of their ongoing campaigns for international health crises.

Facebook provides links to several organizations through Network for Good.

It’s easy to think that a wealthy nation like Japan doesn’t need our help, but no nation is fully prepared for a disaster of this scale. These non-profit organizations often provide the short-term food, shelter, and medical needs that local police and rescue personnel can’t supply.

When donating, please give cash rather than goods. It’s much cheaper and more efficient for these organizations to buy their own food, blankets, and other supplies, often from suppliers close to the disaster region. Blankets and food collected here would have to be shipped at great expense and may not arrive in time to serve immediate needs.

On a personal note, anyone who lives in a disaster region should once again take this opportunity to check batteries and restock food, water, and pet supplies. If you have a car, keep a little food and a pair of walking shoes and socks in the trunk. I heard a newscaster say, “You hear about this, but you never expect it to happen.” To that I say, yes, you do if you live in a disaster-prone region.  If you don’t, you should. Be prepared.

Most of us are familiar with tithing. Church members pledge to give a certain percentage of their income to the church every month. Typically it’s 10%. They ascribe to the theory that if you give to God, God will give back. There’s a certain poetry in the idea. However, even if you don’t belong to a church, you can still tithe. Just set it up yourself.

Choosing Your Charities
I’ve talked a lot about giving to charity and choosing just a few to support. If you can afford to give monthly to one or two causes, they will love you and you will be supporting their mission in good times and bad, which they desperately need.

Why Charities Need Regular Donations
Every time there’s a disaster, money pours in. As of this writing, the Red Cross had collected over $8 million just from text messages alone. But here’s the thing – it takes time to process and deploy those donations. To those who complain that some of the money goes into a reserve fund: remember that the Red Cross had to mobilize immediately when the disaster struck. They have to have money in their reserve fund to pay for staff and supplies to meet an immediate need. They also already had people in Haiti, because the situation there was dire before the earthquake. Donations made now will be used to continue their efforts, but any overage will be used when the next disaster strikes. And one will. It may not be a disaster that makes the news, but the Red Cross will be there anyway.

The same can be said of Doctors without Borders.  This group does amazing work with a volunteer staff of doctors and nurse in poor and disaster-struck areas. However, medical supplies aren’t always free. They need money for transportation and supplies all the time, not just when disaster strikes. Like the Red Cross, they already had “boots on the ground” in Haiti when the earthquake struck. Obviously they need millions for their efforts in Haiti, but they also need millions to fund their year-round work around the world.

Choose Your Causes Carefully, but Include a Humanitarian Effort, Please
When we’re choosing our annual or monthly donations, most of us think of the causes that are important to us personally, like breast cancer or the environment. Then when a disaster strikes, we make a one-time donation to relief group. That’s great. But I personally believe that those of us who can afford it should give to humanitarian causes between disasters. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s been a victim of slavery, corruption, and neglect over the decades. Although it receives significant aid from the US government and local charities, it doesn’t frequently register with the rest of us.

That’s a sad statement about our level of awareness. It shouldn’t take a disaster to draw attention to suffering. Instead, all of us should regularly include humanitarian efforts in our giving. There are many choices: Oxfam, CARE, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, United Way, the list goes on.

At the start of 2010, consider adding a humanitarian cause to your charity list. The poorest people in the

This time of year, and frankly all year long if you’ve donated anything to any charity ever, you’re likely bombarded with requests for donations. You might be tempted to spread your money around to several different charities. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not the best way to make the most of your donations, or a benefit to the charities.

Choose Your Charities Carefully
One year I received an inheritance after my aunt died of breast cancer. I sent a large check to a breast cancer charity, then decided to give $50 a month to charity. I chose 12 charities. Then I realized that each of those charities had put me on their list and were now sending me address labels and other goodies to try to get me to give more. They then sold my name to more charities who sent me stuff. By the time I moved out of my house, I had over 1,000 address labels sitting on a shelf. The charities had probably spent far more than my initial donation trying to get me to give more.

So, rather than donating to multiple charities, get together with your family and make a list of the causes that are truly important to you. Decide how much you’ll give, and then narrow your list down to 2-3 charities. Divide the money between them, then make a commitment to keep giving year-after-year so the charity doesn’t needlessly pursue you.

Making One-Time Donations
That’s not to say that you can’t give one-time donations. I‘ve given one-time donations to two friends doing different walks-for-the-cure. I donated online, specified that it was for the walk, and checked the box instructing them not to contact me. They got their money, and they didn’t waste money asking me for more.

My husband and I also usually give one-time donations when major natural disasters strike. Once again, we donate online and mark the box asking not to be contacted again (or uncheck the box, depending on the charity.)

If you’re making a one-time donation outside of a disaster or fundraising walk, include a note with your donation asking that you NOT be put on their list and that your name NOT be sold. If you receive solicitations again, call them and ask to be removed. It sounds heartless, but charities would rather not waste money going after donations they won’t get.

Investigating Charities
Chances are you know of several reputable charities. If you’re familiar with them, you don’t need to spend a lot of time researching them. However, you have to careful when adding new charities to your list or when making a donation after a natural disaster because scammers abound, and some legitimate charities aren’t actually that good at spending their donations.

Before you give one penny, visit the charity’s website. Don’t give if it looks cheap or has misspellings. However, a flashy website isn’t a sign of honesty. Your next step is to visit one of the charity vetting sites: Charity Navigator, Guidestar, Charity Guide, the American Institute of Philanthropy, or the Better Business Bureau. Not all charities will be listed with any one site, so you also have trust your gut somewhat. For disaster relief, stick with the well-known charities.

Donate Throughout the Year
Many people give at Christmas, but you should consider spacing out your donations throughout the year. That not only helps you plan your budget, but gives the charities a boost during their low season.

Take Advantage of Matching Funds
Matching funds are corporate donations triggered by personal donations. You can contribute matching funds in a couple ways:

Pledge Drives: Some charities hold pledge drives. Corporations will agree to sponsor a certain period or match a set dollar amount. If you give during this time, your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar. If the charity doesn’t get enough during the period, they won’t get the full amount. So watch for these and donate during the matching period to make sure they get the full match.

Paycheck Matches: Some large corporations allow employees to donate to charity through payroll deductions. They may also match the employee’s donation dollar-for-dollar or 50%. If your company offers such a program, take advantage of it. It’s a great way to give your charity a little boost without any extra effort on your part once the donation is set up.

When you’re bombarded by requests for charity, you might feel heartless ignoring some of the requests, but it really is best to stick to a few charities and make the most of your donations.

Yesterday I did some creative couponing that netted me four brand new, brand-name boxes of cereal for a dollar. We don’t actually eat cereal, but we have house guests coming who do, so I wanted one box for them. My choice was to spend $2.50 for one box, or $1 for four. So, thanks to the joys of grocery store math, I decided to buy four boxes and donate the excess three to a food drive.

How the Deal Went Down
This was a spectacular deal, but you do see things like this at the grocery store a few times a year. It’s a great opportunity to stock up on food drive donations so you can help those who are less fortunate.

It started with a special:
General Mills cereal for $1.50 per box if you bought four boxes in one transaction, otherwise it was $2.50 a box. If you bought four boxes, you also got $4 off your grocery order.
So, $6 -$4=$2 for four boxes. Not bad, just 50 cents each.
But it got better. I had a coupon for $1 off 2 boxes. My store only doubles up to $1 max, so $2-$1=$1 for four boxes.
I could have gotten the cereal free if I’d had one more coupon with a value of 50 cents or more, but I settled for 25 cents per box.

What to Watch Out For
When you’re doing deals like this with an eye toward donating the excess you won’t eat, always check the condition of the donated item. Choose cans or boxes that don’t have dents or tears, because the food bank may not be able to accept it. You should also check the expiration date. Make sure that it’s far enough away that you’ll have time to find a food drive and the food bank will have time to distribute your items before it expires. In my case, the cereal doesn’t expire until October, 2010.

Creative Couponing Opportunities
All though super-amazing deals like the cereal deal are less frequent, you’ll still have plenty of opportunities. Personal care items are a big one for super deals, and charities always need things like toothpaste, shampoo, and diapers, which are donated less frequently than food. Here are a few creative coupon methods to score free or cheap items to donate:

B1G1 or BOGO Deals – Combine a buy one, get one free special with a coupon. You’ll get the single item you wanted very cheap, plus a free one to donate.

Close-outs – Sometimes close-outs are too close to the expiration date to make it a good deal, but not always. You might see a big sale on something like cranberry sauce after the holidays. It’s not expired, but the store knows it won’t sell. Charities, on the other hand, don’t care if cranberry sauce is a holiday item. A close-out may also occur if the store is scheduling a remodel or phasing out a brand. I’ve seen close-outs for a packaging change, too. When Tropicana’s new package flopped, they significantly marked down their juice to get rid of the new cartons before re-releasing the old design.

Rebates - Several times a year, a manufacturer will offer a rebate for certain grocery or personal care products. Buy twice as much as you need. Donate half, and then keep the rest to submit your labels for the rebate. Often you’ll at least cover the cost of the donated food, and might even make a little extra on the deal.

Free with Purchase – This happens more often at Costco, but I’ve also seen it at Target and grocery stores. Sometimes the manufacturer will bundle a product with a sample size. Donate the sample sizes and it costs you nothing. I have one sample size of my shampoo, body wash, etc. If you need the sample size for traveling, keep one that you can refill (the top comes off if you pull hard enough) and donate the rest.

If you watch your coupons and store circulars carefully, you can score lots of free or nearly free items that are perfect donations to a food drive. Why not use some of your good fortune to help someone else?

On Friday, I recommended that you avoid buying consumer goods to help a cause, and instead send a cash donation. If you’re able to itemize your tax returns, you get a nice bonus for your donation in the form of a tax deduction. You have to be careful that the organization you donate to actually qualifies for tax-exemption, but you can also deduct some non-cash donations and other surprising things. You might able to deduct far more than you expected!

Deducting Cash Donations
Most people know that cash donations to charities are tax-deductible, but not all groups qualify as charities, even if you think they do. In order for your donation to be deductible, the charity must be a 501(c) 3 organization. Political groups and lobbying groups do not qualify. For example, despite being an environmental organization, the Sierra Club is not tax-exempt because it’s a lobbying organization. You can’t deduct your donations to it. The Nature Conservancy is a tax-exempt organization that does not engage in extensive lobbying, therefore your donations are tax deductible. Charities are required to give you a receipt for your donation and it should say whether your deduction is deductible. Keep that receipt with your tax documents.

Deducting Non-Cash Donations
You can deduct the current value of donated items that are in good condition. Be reasonable in your estimates. The sweater you paid $100 for five years ago is probably only worth $10 now, not $100. If you’re donating high-value items, have them appraised first.

Deducting Things You Buy
Donations for which you receive something in return are not generally deductible. For example, buying raffle tickets for $1 each would not be deductible. You might be able to deduct a portion of a ticket to a $200 a plate charity dinner. Usually the organization will tell you the deductible amount on your dinner ticket, invitation, or receipt.

You can deduct the cost of supplies you donate to a charity or use as part of your volunteer work. For example, a ream of paper and an ink cartridge for printing flyers. You can also deduct the cost of a volunteer uniform if it’s not something you can wear for other uses and it’s required in order to volunteer.

Deducting Transportation Expenses.
You can deduct the cost of transportation and lodging while volunteering, unless you volunteer as part of a vacation, you can’t deduct the cost of your seven-day trip to Hawaii if you only volunteer for three hours. You could deduct the cost of the trip if you volunteered all seven days for a significant portion of the day.

If you drive to a volunteer location, you can deduct the cost of gas and oil. If you don’t save the receipt, you can calculate it at 14 cents per mile.

Non-Deductible Items
Many people who volunteer want to deduct the value of their time, but you can’t do that. You also can’t deduct your personal expenses, such as meals and babysitters, incurred while volunteering.

Deduction Limit
There are some exceptions, but in most cases you can’t deduct more than 50% of adjusted gross income. Most of us can’t afford to give that much. If you can afford to donate half your income, it might be time to talk to a financial adviser about how best to manage your donations.

Obviously, you should donate to a cause or support a charity because it’s important to you, not because you get a deduction. The deduction is just a nice bonus. But if you do qualify for a deduction, don’t skip that bonus.

It’s October, which means it’s Breast Cancer Awareness month. The fight against breast cancer is a cause near and dear to my heart. After my aunt died from the disease, I used part of my inheritance to make a sizable donation to a breast cancer charity. I continue to give what I can. I don’t, however, buy “pink” products that claim to make donations to charity. I also don’t buy red products for AIDS or any of the other stuff that supposedly supports a charity. The very idea that we can buy stuff to fight a disease or support a cause is ridiculous and makes me very stabby.

Why Businesses Go Pink
It’s another p-word, but it has nothing to do with helping women. It’s profits. They know that we consumers will buy more of a pink-ribboned product during October if we believe that we’re somehow helping support breast cancer charities. We will buy these products over non-ribboned products, even if they cost a little more. According to a recent study, “79 percent of respondents said they were likely to switch from one brand to another if was associated with a good cause.”

If they were truly concerned about breast cancer, they would make donations without requiring consumers to do anything. It would simply be a part of their corporate philanthropy. Avon, for example, sells pink-ribboned products to raise money for breast cancer, but they also operate a breast cancer foundation that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars through non-product fundraising programs. Obviously they have an ulterior motive – their market is most at risk for breast cancer – but they’re not doing this simply for market share.

The Problem with These Promotions
I have a few problems with these promotions. First, many of them give a paltry sum for your purchase. Maybe 2-3 cents per labeled item sold. Yes, these can add up, but they’re probably earning fare more in additional profits. As it stands now, anyone can slap a pink-ribbon or pink label on something and rake in the dough, often for a tiny donation compared to their profits.

Second, some manufacturers sell pink-ribbon products to raise “awareness” and don’t make any donation based on the purchase! Most don’t disclose this on the product, just slap a pink ribbon on it and let you infer their support.

Third, some of these promotions require consumers to do something before a donation will be made. One example is Yoplait’s pink lid campaign. It’s not enough for you to buy the yogurt. You have to wash your lid, bag it, and mail it to the company, which will then donate 10 cents per lid. They do have a substantial minimum commitment, but last year was the first time they met their maximum donation cap. That means a whole lot of people were buying their yogurt and then not sending in the lids. People who do send in the lids also have to spend more money, in the form of postage, to mail the things. If you’re going to that much effort, why not just make a donation?

How to Offer True Support
If breast cancer or AIDS or any other cause is important to you, don’t wait for its official month. Don’t buy a product because the manufacturer will make a small donation to your cause. Instead, make a direct donation. It’s doesn’t have to be much, even just $5-$10. If everyone who bought a pink-ribboned product did that, we would truly make a difference.

Finding Money for Your Donation
Even if you have a tight budget, you can still find the money to make a donation.

Use coupons. Whether or not your regularly coupon, do it for one month. Combine your coupons with in-store sales for maximums savings. Make a note of the amount you saved (it should be at the bottom of your receipt.) At the end of the month, total your savings and then send that to your charity of choice.

Don’t spend change. Use only whole bills for one month. Put your change in a jar every day. At the end of the month, tally up the change and send that amount to charity. You can do it directly through a CoinStar machine for free.

Eat a few meals in. If you normally go out to lunch every day, brown bag it twice a week for a month. If you go out to dinner once a week, skip two of those dinners out. Donate the money you saved by eating in to your charity of choice.

Donate the money you would have spent buying a charity product. If you were going to buy a shirt for $20, and saw a breast cancer shirt for $25, get the cheaper shirt and send that $5 to a charity. They’ll see more of that $5 if you send it direct.

For several years, an at-risk youth group would come to my door shilling newspaper subscriptions. They’d get $10 for each subscription. Since I didn’t want a newspaper, I asked the adult mentor for the organization’s contact information to make a direct donation. He gave me a flyer and told me to put the child’s fundraising number on it so he’d get credit toward the trip he was earning. Everybody won – a worthwhile organization got money, the kid got his reward, and I didn’t have another newspaper to recycle.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy a product with a pink ribbon, just make sure it’s something you were going to buy anyway and aren’t paying extra for the privilege of seeing the company make a tiny donation to a cause.

Now that my husband and I are more financially secure, we’re developing a plan to donate money to charity monthly. We’ll choose 3-4 charities and rotate the money between them. Most charities are suffering right now due to the failing economy. If you have a little spare cash or creativity, you can find ways to donate to charity even in tough times. If you don’t already have charities selected, visit Just Give or Charity Navigator to find worthwhile charities. Use GuideStar to check them out completely.

Donate, But Donate Less
If you used to donate $500 a year to charity, see if you can give at least $120 this year. Set aside $10 each month to donate to a charity in bulk at the end of the year (or split between two charities). That works out to $2.50 a week. Unless you’re really living hand-to-mouth, you can probably spare that much. Skip one McDonald’s lunch in favor of a homemade sandwich and you’ve saved your weekly portion of the donation.

Look for Change on the Ground
Most people will walk right by coins on the ground. Pick them up – with a tissue if you’re worried about germs. You’ll quickly find that the money adds up.

Don’t Spend Coins
I got out of the habit of spending coins when I had to start saving quarters for laundry. My husband and I recently bundled up all our coins and discovered we had over $70! If you stop spending coins, or at least not spending the pennies and nickels, you’ll quickly gather enough for to help a charity. Take your change to a Coinstar machine to donate directly through the machine, or roll it up and take it the bank so you can send a check to a charity you support.

Use Coupons for Free Food
Collect grocery coupons and then watch the stores for great deals. When you have the chance to do a buy 1, get 1 free or buy something that’s free after coupon, buy it and donate it to a food bank. Food bank donations are down 40%, just when they have thousands of extra mouths to feed. Please help if you can.

Click to Give
If you absolutely can’t spare a dime and don’t get coupons, then you can donate for free. Try The Hunger Site, which has several causes including hunger, breast cancer, and the rainforest. All you have to do is click and their sponsors make the donation. Care2 offers the same service for a wide array of causes. If you like a little challenge with your donation, visit FreeRice, whose sponsor donates 10 grains of rice through the UN World Food Program for every vocabulary word you get right.

My husband and I plan to donate to the Komen Foundation (breast cancer), the Nature Conservancy (environment), and one other charity we haven’t decided on yet. We also plan to shift our donation when a natural disaster strikes. We’ve already done so with Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami because we live in earthquake country and we know how valuable those donations can be in the midst of an emergency.

As the economy has worsened, have you increased or decreased your charitable donations? How are you finding creative ways to give?

This year, my cousin used our adopt-a-family donations (about $150 total) to give gifts to twelve people. She was able to give so generously because she planned ahead at the end of the last year and bought most of the items for 75-90% off. Then she simply looked for people who wanted those clothing items and toys on the church donation tree. You can do the same thing to save money on charitable donations as well as gifts for friends and family members throughout the year.

Holiday and Seasonal Close-Outs
If you know someone who collects Christmas items, visit the mall on December 26 to snap up adorable gifts for more than half off. Then just put them in the closet until next year. You can actually repeat this at the end of every season, when retailers need to unload items like sporting goods, travel apparel, or anything other related to a specific season. Keep a list of your friends’ and loved ones’ hobbies so you can snap up deals when you see them.

Toy Sales
If you’re a parent, then those birthday parties your children attend can really add up. Again, a little forward planning can save you a ton of money on gifts. Just shop the post-holiday toy sales for always popular gifts, or items that will still be popular for the next year. I doubt Hannah Montana or Harry Potter will be losing popularity before the end of 2009. Again, stash them in the closet for later in the year. You can also use this method to stock up on gifts for your own children. Just make sure you hide them well. Not only will this save you money, but you won’t have to rush out to buy a gift when you receive a last-minute invitation.

Discount Candles and Collectibles
I’ve made this recommendation before, but it’s always a good idea to shop the post-holiday sales for candles and other small gift items that are perfect for hostesses. Keep them wrapped in the closet so you can grab them before you head out the door.

Of course, this does require setting aside some storage space in the garage or closet, but saving at least 50% on your annual gift budget is worth the effort. Once you get into the habit of shopping ahead, you’ll never pay full-price for gifts and charitable donations again. Lest you worry about being cheap, no one will know you got a deal, and charities don’t care how much you paid for a donation item as long as it’s in good condition.

The holiday season is a great time to clean out your closet and donate your old, but still wearable, clothes to charity. As people pour into shelters to escape the winter cold, the need for clothes is ever-greater. This is also the time of year when many organizations sponsor major clothing collection drives. Here are a few tips for cleaning out the closet.

Clean Out the Closet in One Day
Some people recommend you set aside 15 minutes a day until the job is done. I’m more of a get-in-done-in-one-shot kind of person. It maye take a few hours, but then it will be done. Set a start time of around ten AM. Turn up the tunes, pour a warm beverage or some nog, then get to work.

Gather Boxes and Bags in Advance
The easiest way to clean is to set up two boxes: toss and give away. I usually leave the keepers on the hangers. If you have a lot of shelving, you may need a keeper box as a temporary holding spot. When a box gets full, either open another box or switch to paper or plastic bags.

Work Quickly
Don’t spend too long hemming and hawing over any particular item. You know what you haven’t worn in a year, what you don’t like, and what doesn’t fit. If your first instinct is to toss it, then toss it. If you’re first instinct is to keep it, then keep it – for now. You may want to take a bit of time determining whether something is a toss or a giveaway though. If it’s seriously worn or irreparably dirty, then toss it. If it’s just worn at the cuffs and hems but the zippers and buttons are still attached and there are no holes or major stains, then it’s worth donating.

Be Strict with Yourself
Unless it’s your wedding dress or another keepsake item that has sentimental value, don’t talk yourself into keeping an unworn shirt from three seasons ago just because you got a great deal on it. If you haven’t worn it, you never will. If it’s never fit, give it up. Most likely, it never will. You can, however, keep one pair of “skinny jeans.” No, not those horribly fashionable skin-tight jeans only supermodels could wear. I mean the pair of jeans that fit perfectly a few years ago, but are a little snug now. If you’re trying to lose weight, they may be the motivation you need to get in shape.

Be Careful with Shoes
When you’re throwing out shoes, check them carefully before putting them in the donation box. Charities usually can’t use shoes with worn out soles. Scuff marks are fine and broken laces are easy to replace, but toss them out if the sole is nearly worn through, the leather is broken, or there are holes in the top.

Clean the Shelves, Too
Once you get done with the hangers and the floor, make a sweep of the shelves. Reconsider the pile of old pillows stacked at the top, the stack of old purses you’ll probably never use, and various other items that get stuffed up there. Toss what you won’t use, but consider keeping all the free tote bags you’ve collected – they make great grocery bags. Either set them aside so you can transfer them to your car, or give them away so recipient families will have something to carry their “new” clothes home in.

Check the Other Closets and the Dressers
If you have a spouse or children, make the event a family affair. Children especially need clothes because they grow so quickly, and many shelters run low on children’s clothes due to hand-me-downs. If you don’t plan to have more kids, go through the clothes to find items suitable for donating. You should also ask your kids to sort through their toys. Something they no longer play with may make another child’s holiday if it’s in good condition. And what about garage storage? Look for canned goods, pots and pans that are in good condition, anything that can help a needy family get back on its feet. Once you start looking, you’ll find a lot of items you can give away. When I cleaned out my closet and dresser, I gave away four bags of clothes and shoes, and that was just me, not my husband.

Make a Final Check
Once you’re done, return to the closet one more time to see if there’s anything else you can part with. Now that you’re in full cleaning mode, you may be more willing to get rid of stuff.

Arrange for Pick-Up or Drop-Off
Finally, don’t let this stuff linger in your home or garage. Call a local church, St. Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army, or a local homeless shelter to arrange for pick-up or drop-off. We’ve donated to both the Los Angeles Mission and Beyond Shelter, a local service that helps families rebuild their lives. If you have good winter coats, visit One Warm Coat to make your donation.

Anytime is a good time to clean out the closet. If you can’t do it before the holidays, consider it for early January. There will still be people in need during the harsh winter months. You might also consider making it an annual event, or even seasonally if you store your winter and summer clothes in the off-season.

My family used to go buy or make Christmas ornaments the day after Thanksgiving. Then one year we changed the plan. Our family activity included stopping by a local church for a few hours to help sort clothes from their clothing drive. It was a rewarding experience for us and a great help to the church. With so many people in need this year, the best gift you could give might be time. Here are a few ideas to help you do that.

Visit a Local Church
Many churches have food, clothing, and toy drives this time of year. While it’s easy to get people to donate, it’s harder to find people to sort the donations. Ask the office when they need help and tell them when you’ll arrive and with how many people. That will help them best use your time.

Call the Local Food Bank
Most food banks give out bags or boxes of food during Christmas week to provide families with a Christmas dinner. Call ahead to find out how you can volunteer to help. Try to round up a few friends or family members to help that day, too.

Volunteer at a Soup Kitchen
Soup kitchens operate year-round, but they tend to be busier during the cold months and especially on Thanksgiving and Christmas. If you have a few hours to give on the actual holiday, volunteer to serve those in need. My friend told the story of a little boy and his mom she served one year. He asked very carefully if he could have a glass of milk, and then made great pains not to spill it. When he quietly asked for a second glass and she gave it to him, you’d have thought she’d given him the keys to the toy store. When you help people who are truly suffering, it helps you realize the true meaning of the season.

Volunteer at a Homeless Shelter
Homeless shelters also collect donations of food and clothes. Call to volunteer your help sorting their donations.

Volunteer at a Hospital
There’s nothing worse than spending the holiday season in the hospital. This year, visit a hospital to help distribute toys or read to sick children, talk to people whose families are too far away to see them during the holidays, or organize the trauma closet.

Visit a Nursing Home
Sadly, many elderly people in nursing homes never receive visits from their families. Stop by on Christmas or Christmas Eve to spend a little time with those who will be alone on the holiday. They have great wisdom and great stories – you might find that the visit means more to you than any gift could.

Help a Community Toy Drive
Various organizations host toy drives for Christmas. Although they usually have a delivery system in place, they may need help sorting and tagging the toys. Spend a few hours in the days leading up to the holiday helping them organize the donations.

No matter what type of help you want to offer, some organization will be more than happy to receive it. Start with local groups you’re already familiar with, and then branch out. Once you give the gift of time, the holiday season will take on new meaning for you.

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