Do you remember a commercial that used to be on TV, about a father and his children sneaking groceries onto their poor neighbour’s doorstep? There’s something really beautiful about blessing the people who live around us. There are big, effective organizations that help us to give to people in other parts of the world (which we should do). But where do you turn to give locally?
To try to learn to do this has been a (small) part of my work as a pastor. Let me share some keys to what I’ve learned:
Use a middle-man. If you want to give to a friend or neighbour anonymously, the most effective way to do so is to use a middle-man. He or she can say, “this is from an anonymous person who cares.” It works better than leaving the gift on the doorstep because (a) the middle-man can make sure the gift arrives safely; (b) there’s less risk of “getting caught”; (c) the recipient will enjoy being able to pass along their thanks and any other specific feedback; etc.
Find grass-roots programs that are already running, and figure out how to support them. For example, our local elementary school (New Germany Elementary) has a free milk program that provides free milk every morning to any children who want it. By making the milk available to all the children, we are more confident that the children who really need it will take it without stigma. The program is often under-funded, and the school can issue tax receipts to donors. The program costs about $400 per month.
Find who the local professionals are who see real needs, and figure out how to resource them. For example, ask your doctor if he or she sees a lot of poverty. If yes, then ask whether, if you gave some gift cards for a grocery store, if he/she would be able to pass them along. Some professionals will be very keen to do that, others might not. But you don’t know until you ask. You won’t know who the recipients are, but you will probably be able to trust that this professional’s inside view will make for some very effective gift-placement.
I heard one story about a medical professional passing along $200 of gift cards to a young mother. That mother used those cards to fill her empty fridge. Soon after the fridge was filled, Child and Family Services showed up for an inspection. If the fridge had been empty, the child would have been taken into custody. But the fridge was full. That gift made a difference that day.
Ask local trades-people if there are significant needs that they know about. E.g., ask your mechanic if he knows a vulnerable person driving an unsafe car due to lack of funds, and whether a few hundred dollars would make a difference. Or suggest that you could put some credit on a vulnerable person’s tab, to make sure they get their car fixed the next time the brakes or tires wear out. Or sometimes your plumber might have clients whose water he got running but who haven’t been able to pay. Once again, you won’t know the identities of who the people are you’re helping, but you’ll have the joy of knowing your money is probably making a difference.
Some of these kinds of gifts won’t provide charitable tax receipts. If tax receipts will make a big difference for you at the end of the year, then you may want to approach a local charity (e.g., the Lions Club, or your church) and suggest that you could run the gift through them to your targeted recipient. They may be pleased to partner with you.
If your ambition is to give larger gifts, then ask around to the charitable organizations and churches in your local area, to learn if there are particular social workers etc. to whom you could give your contact info. There are people whose job it is to help vulnerable people figure out how to find funding for things that they need (medications, transitions, power, heat, etc.). It is good for those workers to be able to add contacts to their lists, to be able to call to ask for help on behalf of their clients when strategic needs arise.
All of that being said, the most important practical advice I can give is to pray: ask God to help you connect with just the right people in just the right moments, to make your local gift-giving effective and joyful.