It’s 5 p.m. on a Monday in early December. I’ve got my camera ready, waiting to capture hungry and homeless guests who enter the dining hall at the downtown Hope Mission. I hope to share their smiles as they see the placemat a donor has signed for them. I want pictures of these guests laughing between bites of turkey and gravy so that I can share them on our website. Near the end of the meal, I’ll ask some of these guests to speak a thank you message into the camera so our donors know their money has been well spent.

Volunteers lucky or savvy enough to have applied months earlier serve holiday meals with a smile. Come January and February, when winter is cruelest to the homeless, our volunteer coordinator will return to her daily grind, filling a mass of vacant slots at a regular meal.

In my leadership role at Bleeding Heart Art Space, I’ve felt that tight-chested dread, needing to fill a shift with just a day left. I now work alongside Ruth, the volunteer coordinator for a regular meal program at St.Faith’s Anglican Church. Finding volunteers in the lean times is hard. Unlike a boss with paid staff, there is little we can do about last-minute cancellations, except to smile graciously and say “I understand”.

I understand that holidays, and Christmas especially, remind us of the importance of family and fellowship. We experience family ourselves, or we miss them acutely this time of year. All of this leads to empathy and the desire to help others. Considering the increased needs of agencies providing extra meals and shelter for cold nights, this aid is a blessing.

I understand that during the season, we are all caught up in ‘the spirit of giving’. Or, at least, the spirit of spending. The appeals come often. Year-end is looming, with government tax rebates tied to our financial donations.

There is nothing wrong, to my mind, with a gift that helps the giver as much as the receiver. That good feeling we get serving a meal to a homeless family is good for a reason. This is how we are supposed to feel in life when we help one another, and we are meant to feel this way often.

It is when our generosity comes just once a year, like a snowstorm, and especially with strings attached, that problems arise. For some non-profit staff, the hardest part of Christmas is managing expectations of volunteers who are incredulous that there is no room for them and donors with very specific expectations.

Might I suggest some simple principles to keep in mind as we head into this season of generosity?

If you want to serve a Christmas meal to the hungry or homeless, contact organizations months in advance.

Capitalise on your holiday-themed desire to help by signing up for a volunteer position after the holidays. Your passion now can fuel valuable volunteerism later.

Give what money you can, without strings attached. Give to organizations you trust and then let them do their best work, because the greatest needs may not be what (or when) you expect. Those needs may be anything from toilet paper to floor washers; from data entry to deodorant.

Set up a recurring, monthly gift or a regular shift with your favourite non-profit. Small, regular contributions have a big impact.

Whenever you give, ask the organization “what do you need the most right now?” Non-profits will love you for this question. Just call me up and ask me this and I’ll prove it to you.   

I’ve walked the tense tightrope between the wants of the donor and the needs of the recipient, my camera in hand. I’ve worked in fundraising and I’ve coordinated volunteers. I’ve learned that giving does help, and the greatest gifts are those given selflessly, in times of great need, with no strings attached.

Dave holds a Bachelor of Theology and is artistic director of the Bleeding Heart Art Space. He lives in the inner city with his wife, two children and dog.

Header image: Contact organizations months ahead of time to volunteer at Christmas. | Unsplash