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Practice stealthy acts of kindness

Do it because it's the right thing to do, rather than to get your picture in the paper.

By Donna_Freedman Dec 20, 2010 9:53AM

At this time of year everyone wakes up to the fact that need exists in the United States. Everywhere you look are food drives, gift drives, coat drives.

Here's a news flash: Need exists all year long, not just in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.


Don't get me wrong: I love it when people do nice things. I just wish it weren't so holiday-specific. Pardon my grinchiness, but I think some of these once-a-year volunteers aren't doing it for the homeless, the seniors or the kids. They're doing it to make themselves feel good.


I'm reminded of the calls and personal entreaties I used to get in my newspapering days: This youth group or that professional organization would be handing out gloves or putting together food bags, so could the paper send a photographer?

Although I was always polite, these requests made me feel cranky. The groups asking for coverage wanted recognition for doing the right thing. If they were really serious about doing the right thing, shouldn't they do it without requesting a shooter?

Santa-like stealth

Here's a ready-made resolution for you come Dec. 31: I will do at least one kind thing a week in 2011, and I will do it anonymously.

That's right: No publicity. No one can know. If you're caught in the act, then you have to make up for it by doing something else that week, only in a stealthier way.

It doesn't have to be for an organized charity, mind you. Suppose you notice a guy holding the sign for a mattress store's going-out-of-business sale. You can bet that he isn't making big bucks to do it. Ask if you can bring him some lunch.

Or suppose you have a relative or friend who is struggling financially. See if you can make an anonymous payment against her utilities, a doctor's bill or even rent (that is, if you know the landlord to be honest as well as close-mouthed).

You could also mail a grocery gift card or a money order, using the person's own address as the return address. Ask someone else to address the envelope so your writing won't be recognized, and send it from a nearby town so the postmark is different.

On a couple of occasions I've gone so far as to mail my donations to a faraway friend, who re-mails them. The recipients might (or might not) have suspected it was me, but they know I don't live in Iowa.

Kindness toward strangers

Got a few bucks to spare? Try helping in ways like these:

  • Buy socks whenever they're on sale -- homeless shelters can always use them.
  • Find out what kind of coffee they serve at the senior center and leave a few cans of their favorite bean on the back step.
  • Drop off a case of toilet paper at the homeless shelter.
  • Give a few books of stamps to a neighborhood nonprofit, an arts group or any other low-budget organization that needs to do mailings.
  • Take diapers to the family shelter.
  • Go to a nursing home or adult group home and ask if there are residents who don't have extended families. Find out what they need, then provide it.

Giving on a shoestring

Even if your budget is tight, you may find ways you can help. Such as:

  • Starting in mid-July, stock up on school supply loss leaders (5-cent notebook paper!) and deliver them to schools.
  • Donate free-after-rebate toiletries to shelters.
  • Done with your magazines? Ask if it's OK to leave them in places where people congregate: Laundromat, food bank, vocational rehab office.
  • When asked what you want for your birthday, suggest a donation to the local food bank.
  • If you walk past a parking meter that's about to expire, drop in a coin.
  • Offer items on the Freecycle network. 
  • Be a coupon fairy: If the person in line ahead of you is buying something you have coupons for, hand over a few.
  • Getting a soft drink or a candy bar? When the quarter falls into the change slot, leave it there for the next person to find.
  • If a neighbor is elderly or a shut-in, shovel his or her sidewalk late at night or early in the morning when you won't be seen.

Remember: You're doing this because it's the right thing to do, not because you want applause for doing it.

In giving, you get

Doing cranberry-sauce duty at the homeless shelter's Thanksgiving buffet is a nice thing to do. But it doesn't give you a free pass for the rest of the year.

No, you don't have to give to others. But you should.

It makes you realize how lucky you are, i.e., you have something to give. An hour of your time, a pound of coffee or a nice big check will make a difference in someone else's life.

When I was at my lowest point financially I nonetheless gave $20 a month to my church's community service programs (rent assistance, emergency pantry, et al.). The donation made me realize that no matter how dire my situation was, I still had options. In other words, I could donate $20 a month and still keep the lights on at my own place.

How about it, readers: What are some of the ways that you give? Do you ever do it anonymously in addition to any donations for which you take a tax write-off?

Donna Freedman is the MSN Money Living With Less columnist and also blogs at Smart Spending and Surviving and Thriving.

Dec 20, 2010 5:33PM
@Mikey Gato: I'm not talking about attempts to recruit volunteers. I'm talking about self-aggrandizement. The newspaper for which I worked did (and still does) plenty of pieces on charitable drives.
But to hear some sponsors talk, their groups "deserve" a photo because they "worked so hard" to collect all those scarves. That work should be done because it's the right thing to do, rather than to get something in return.
Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

Dec 20, 2010 3:53PM

What a mean spirited article! I guarantee you that the first organization that tells mean I am donating my time and talents for myself will be the last organization I ever help again. When the Boy Scouts or the local church group asks for a photo in the paper, did it ever occur to you that the reason was to help recruit more volunteers - not for personal recognition? Do you have any idea how hard it is to get donors to pose for those grip and grins? Most people want to donate anonymously - it is the charity that needs the publicity to encourage others to do the same. And it has been my experience that people who give at the holidays also give of themselves quietly year round because they are caring people.

Your article had some good ideas for ways to help others - too bad it was so snide.

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