Here came a woman, striding across the parking lot. She was out of gas. Her mother was suddenly in the hospital, which threw everything out of whack, including finances. She needed a couple of bucks, anything, please, to get home.

It happened again last week.

I was outside a business on Noland Road, talking with someone. Here came a woman, striding across the parking lot. She was out of gas. Her mother was suddenly in the hospital, which threw everything out of whack, including finances. She needed a couple of bucks, anything, please, to get home.

What do you do?

I have come to think there is no right answer. How can helping someone in need – if that’s the case – be wrong? An equally strong case can be made for a firm no and finding a better charitable use for that money. But, as we approach what is called the season of giving, how do you begin to sort that out?

 

1 Where are you coming from? I called my friend Josef Walker, past president of the Independence Ministerial Alliance.

First things first, he suggested.

“I think the first thing is to be intentional about what resources you have and be clear in your family life between needs and wants,” Walker said. Since many give based on a sense of how richly they have been blessed, it’s important to start with a where you are in your relationship with God, he said.

“People ought to sit down and say, ‘What do I have? What do I need? How can I help people around me who don’t have?’” Walker said.


2 What works? For Michael Levine, executive director of the Community Services League, they key question is not about need – that’s abundant everywhere, in this community and around the world – but rather about where giving can make a difference.

“Where do you think you can have the most impact?” he said.

The Community Services League has locations in Independence, Blue Springs, Buckner, Grain Valley and Oak Grove, and Levine said demand for services – food, utility assistance and other programs – is up 15 to 18 percent this year, “which is not too shocking” given the economy, Levine said.


3 Should I have a plan? Look, I said to Walker, we all know how this goes: the open hand, the non-profits asking for help, the service club fundraisers, the Sunday collection plate, the kids selling Girl Scout cookies and Boy Scout popcorn, the Salvation Army Santa outside at the mall. It adds up.

Walker suggests two pots of money. One is for those Girl Scout cookies because you want to help kids and you want to encourage them to be invested in their causes and learn how to ask for help. But second, Walker said, you want to look to “significant, long-term changes.”


4 So I should find causes that I find important?

“I think it really comes down to things I have a passion for,” said Levine.

He heads off the next question, about how much permanent organizations such as his own or the Red Cross or others spend on overhead. He said when he’s asked how much of donation goes for services, he says the answer is 100 percent “because if I have no staff, I can’t help anybody.”

Walker echoed that idea: “We get more for our money when we go through permanent organizations.” Those are the groups dug in for the long term, addressing the fact that lots of people face chronic, serious needs.

“I still think it’s better than giving someone five bucks,” he said.


5 How do I know if a group is doing the best job with my donations? Levine said donors are more educated about those issues these days and points to couple of websites that shed more light on what nonprofits are doing. One is Charity Navigator at www.charitynavigator.org/, and another is Guide Star at www2.guidestar.org/ as well as a Kansas City equivalent, with much of the same information, at http://gkccf.guidestar.org/.

“It really helps you understand what the organization does,” Levine said.

It also helps the non-profits.

“For us, it’s a key vehicle to get out information out to people,” he said.

Some organizations also tell potential givers how far the help goes. A Community Services League Christmas mailer, for example, says $5 means a Christmas gift for a child, $250 is Christmas dinner for 25 families and $1,000 will keep the heat on all winter for 10 families.



6 Is writing a check enough? Talking with a couple of local food-shelf volunteers last week and discussing the scale of need, I asked if taking three or four items every Sunday for the grocery cart at church was really doing any good. Yes, they insisted, it all helps.

Walker suggests going a step further, giving your time and finding a place to give “where you’ll be invested beyond money.” That, he said, leads to a greater awareness of the overall issues at play and perhaps a deeper level of commitment.

Christians and those in other religious traditions are often good at charity, he said, but need to be better at working on issues of justice. For example, many people are trapped and ground down by economic forces that reinforce systemic poverty.

“No amount of sacks of clothes or groceries will change that,” Walker said.


7 Shouldn’t we help beyond our immediate community, too? Just to take one example among many: Haiti, already a desperately poor country, suffered a devastating earthquake in January. A quarter of a million people died, a million are said to still be living in tents, and now cholera is spreading. What do we do?

Walker acknowledges the natural human impulse summed up in the charity-begins-at-home attitude.

“These are my people. I’ve got to take care of my people” he said.

Levine said that given the range of pressing needs, he puts his focus on basic necessities, too.

But there is more to it. America is blessed, Levine points out.

“I’m blessed. You’re blessed,” he said. “We have jobs. Me may not love them every day, but we have jobs.”

Yes, things are rough now, but the big picture is that this is an affluent society with an obligation to lead.

“And to be that kind of world leader, we need to lend that kind of assistance,” he said.


8 Shouldn’t we give all year long? Absolutely. For example, hunger advocates point out that many children suffer the most during the summer when school is out and there are no hot breakfasts or lunches served in school. Many churches and other organizations have adopted programs to send children home on Fridays with a backpack full of enough food to get through to Monday morning.


9 What if I want to help right here right now? Opportunities are all over. Just pick up the paper: Last week brought the Independence Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, and next week brings the Lions Pancake Day. The area even has groups, such an Outreach International, that are based in Eastern Jackson County but that world in places around the world.

More immediately, the Community Services League already has 1,000 families signed up for its Christmas store.

“We’re a bit concerned about that because we know the need is up,” Levine said.


10 I have to figure this out myself, don’t I? The woman in the parking lot appeared desperate. I looked in my wallet and found a $5 bill. This is not the first time I’ve faced this quandary. I used to belong to a local church where people frequently showed up with a story and a plea. It’s very hard to say no, to risk confrontation and hard feelings, to risk rejecting someone truly in need and for whom one more disappointment is one step deeper into darkness.

The habit I developed was to look into my wallet, and if there was a $5 bill, it was theirs. There always was. Has that money sometimes gone for a drink instead of gas? I’m sure it has, and that means I’ve given away money to make things worse. Has that $5 at times meant a Big Mac for a hungry kid? I’m sure it has.

There is a spiritual dimension to this having to do with helping the stranger in our midst and realizing that ultimately we do not know – cannot know – another person’s whole story, their needs, their motives, their intentions, whether the $5 really helps or just feeds a problem.

Compassion is a given, but compassion needs a direction – good tools and guidelines – if things are to get any better.