As the end-of-year activities grow, it's hard to have time to deal with giving decisions. From the what, where and how of a gift to what source to give from - your bank account, funds from your IRA, a donor-advised fund and even your volunteer time - you're faced with one decision after another.

With too much information, but often not enough of the right information mixed in with our own assumptions and bias, it can really be difficult to make giving decisions. So much so that some of us just don't do it.

Some years ago I found myself in a conversation right after part of the group had made Christmas present deliveries to families through a PATH program. One person was very disturbed about the size of the family television. This conversation took place at the height of the oil and gas downturn in the '80s.

What began as a good feeling about helping the poor turned to donor disappointment that day.

Many families had been caught off guard with layoffs just before the holidays. Some middle-income families were stressed and couldn't figure out how to do Christmas for their children that year. Televisions, cars and designer jeans were inaccurate indicators of circumstance.

On another occasion, I found myself in a conversation right after Thanksgiving. Several in the group had helped to serve dinner at The Salvation Army Lodge. This time there were questions about whether everyone who came through the line was really in need; evidently several were overdressed for a free meal for the homeless. The catch, of course, was that not all were homeless, but certainly most would be counted among the poor.

Even the poor might put on their best clothes to go out for a meal.

The solution to this kind of donor disappointment can be found in trust and respect. Trust that the organizations doing the work are doing the right things at the right time and have respect for people caught in situations we don't have enough information to judge.

It is easier to have respect for people from a different culture or country an ocean away, but what about a different neighborhood right around the corner? Respect for feelings, rights, wishes or traditions is a tool that belongs in our donor toolbox.

The complexities of poverty, whether becoming poor or being born poor or trying to climb out of being poor, are beyond the everyday understanding and experiences for most of us. Organizations that work to help, support, encourage and even to change the circumstances of those in poverty usually know the most about how to work toward change while not doing harm.

I often recommend connecting with an organization to ask questions and gather information in order to improve the chance your gift will make the hoped-for difference. Sometimes it's still not enough or the right information, and trusting the organization is the only option.

Two books, "When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself," by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, and "The Poor Will Be Glad," by Peter Greer and Phil Smith, both share many stories about the complexities of helping the poor. To be fair, both books focus their attention on alleviating poverty in the Third World.

Still, some of the concepts are applicable in any community. Giving of ourselves to improve the circumstances of the poor in a way that allows them to help themselves requires a great amount of respect, no matter the country.

Fikkert encourages us to seek ways to help without hurting the poor or ourselves.

As you consider all the ways to help this season, let respect and trust be your guide to give well.


Dawn Franks, CEO of Your Philanthropy, offers high-touch advising services to families, businesses and foundations to enhance the giving experience and maximize impact. She writes a blog, the YP Journal, at Comments and questions are welcome. Send to

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