Opening the Season of Thanks and Giving

If all the layered meanings of America’s national feast day could be packed into a verb, to have seems to me the right one. We give thanks because we have, rather than have not. So it’s no wonder that the great feast got its impetus in times when having not was such a real alternative that it might be only a step away.

The Pilgrims were Europeans with no local knowledge to help them survive this land so arduously far from home. What would winter bring? How did you ward against it? What foods would grow — and how could you grow them? Where on land and sea did dangers lie?

Were it not for the native Americans who took pity on them, we’d have no Thanksgiving to celebrate.

Wars gave Thanksgiving 18th and 19th century pushes into our lives. George Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving feast after the Revolution, and Abraham Lincoln did so in the midst of the Civil War. In the darkness of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt put Thanksgiving on our late November calendars, leading us right into the Christmas season.

Harking back to our feast’s Pilgrim tradition, we remember that we have — and have thanks to give — because of the charity of others. That memory, combined with the on-rushing season of giving, is a good reminder that our best thanks is in giving so that having — as opposed to having not — is a widely shared blessing. 

To guide our good intentions this season, I’ve borrowed five ways to pick a charity and feel good about your choice from Jeff Rasley, author of Bringing Progress to Paradise (

He advises how to make our gifts and donations personally satisfying experiences beyond the impersonal experience of writing a check. Even if you’re donating rather than volunteering your time and labor, you can get, he says, more involvement in the charity of your choice — and with involvement comes satisfaction. 

1. Give Direct

Consider donating directly to a worthy cause versus a big bureaucratic charity that divides your donation into tiny amounts distributed among many different organizations. You decide which particular charity is worthy of your donation. Why leave that personal decision up to someone else?

2. Take the Time to Decide

Before spending your hard-earned money, spend the time to think through what cause or organization you really care about. If you devoted yourself to a cause or volunteered for a nonprofit, what would it be? What stirs your passion?

If you love animals, consider your local Humane Society. You should be able to find a charter school to support, if educating children is your special passion. Of course the religious organization that promotes your faith is worthy of your financial support. But you can be even more targeted in your support by designating gifts to particular programs sponsored by the organization.

3. Ask to See Results

Modern technologies offer many ways you can see the direct results of your charity. Reports with digital photos can be emailed in response to your requests. Most organizations have websites that are regularly updated with news about projects. You also have the right, should you care to exercise it, to see a nonprofit’s financials.

4. Read the Reports and Look at the Pictures

You don’t need to immerse yourself in the financial minutiae of the charitable organization to feel involved. Enjoy the photos of those kids playing in the shoes you donated. Watch the video posted on the website of the well being dug in that remote mountain village. If you don’t have the time to pound nails, you can still enjoy the photos of the house going up.

5. Require Accountability

If you’re not an accountant and don’t want to audit the books of your chosen charity, don’t. Just ask to see proof that your money has been used in the way you directed. When you give money to the athletic department of your alma mater to purchase new jerseys for the basketball team, ask for a team photo showing off the new outfits. Tracking your donation to make sure it has done what you wanted is your right.

And don’t be afraid to ask what percentage of the nonprofit’s receipts goes to administrative overhead. Any organization that has hefty administrative costs may be more focused on paying itself than fulfilling the mission you want to support.