It’s December, which means the festive season is upon us once again. For some, this year-end period is the season of giving, so the idea of donating to charities is bound to have crossed their minds.
After all, Singapore is ranked seventh in the 2018 Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index (WGI), which takes into account factors such as whether a person has helped a stranger, donated money to a good cause, or volunteered with a charitable organisation.
So it appears that Singaporeans are a gracious and kind bunch then. After all, what’s not kind about thinking of those in need and providing them with not just cash donations, but also items such as toys and stationery, during the festive season?
But, are all donations helpful?
As it turns out, no. Charities and volunteer organisations do face the issue of having an overabundance of donations and gifts – especially during the festive season – so much so that they sometimes struggle to cope.
In a Facebook post last month, Emily Teng, who runs volunteer-driven social initiative Blessings in a Bag, voiced her exasperation at the situation she faced: So many gifts during the year-end, and precious little the rest of the year.
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She wrote: “How do you think that makes a youth who’s receiving the gifts at Christmas feel? Yes, they will be excited and happy and grateful, but do you know what happens when reality sets in? They know that you will eventually just be there for a photo opportunity. They know that you’re only there for a few hours, and that you will soon forget about them as you go on your merry way.
“Do you know how sad and heartbreaking that is?
“Christmas comes once a year and every year, we’re flooded with support… we’re appreciative that people are stepping forward, but I would like to address the elephant in the room…would it actually do more harm than good to those receiving ‘Christmas Cheer’?”
Teng told The Pride that she wrote the post as she was frustrated with the same kind of giving cycle she has seen in the past 11 years while in charge of Blessings in a Bag.
“It’s almost like everyone is rushing in to disburse their CSR (corporate social responsibility) funding allocation, or to kind of just show that they are doing something meaningful during the Christmas season.
“It’s actually very overwhelming and stressful,” the 32-year-old said. Teng explained that since the end of October, she has been getting requests from companies to work together, but being the only full-time staff at the organisation, she is unable to cope with all the requests and is forced to reject them as a result.
It doesn’t matter that Blessings in a Bag has already indicated that donations for November and December are closed – the requests just keep on coming.
Other charities and organisations The Pride spoke to said that they have had similar experiences, too.
The Food Bank Singapore, a charity that collects surplus food and for various charitable organisations and people in need, revealed that they usually see a 20 to 30 per cent increase in the number of activities and donations from November to February.
According to Margarita Seah, a management associate with The Food Bank Singapore, this sudden influx of donations is logistically challenging to handle.
“(But) we can’t really complain much because we are still on the receiving end,” the 23-year-old told The Pride. “After all, when we receive more donations, there’s a higher chance that our beneficiaries are able to get food more regularly.
“We currently serve about 270 charities. Based on the amount of food donations we usually receive, however, it is a little hard for us to feed all of them on a regular basis. But, this is not so much a problem when we come to the end of the year, as more donations come in.
“I just wish that this happens all year round,” Seah added. She also explained that during the lull period, Food Bank Singapore would receive calls from its beneficiaries asking why they don’t receive as much food as before.
Make-A-Wish Foundation Singapore’s CEO Anson Quek, 50, told The Pride that he believes that there are reasons people or corporate companies tend to only give during the year-end period.
The first reason is that people tend to have more free time during the end of the year, especially as it coincides with the holidays. In general, companies also go through a lull during this period, making it easier for them to take time out to fulfil their CSR obligations.
“With more free time on their hands, corporate organisations are more willing to organise company-wide outings,” said Quek.
Another reason may be the year-end bonuses that are handed out, which may lead to people having a more generous mindset which combines with the festive mood.
Said Quek: “We want to encourage them to give on different months of the year, but well, there’s only that few festive holidays that involves giving – there’s only Chinese New Year, New Year, Christmas, Hari Raya. Mid-Autumn, nobody gives anything, right?”
All three organisations agreed that when a company offers to help out a charity as part of its CSR obligations, it often results in a lot of unnecessary work which inconveniences them. On occasions, they end up stretching the already-thin resources they have, or take away time that could have been better spent doing something else.
And instead of the focus being on rendering help to those in need, it is now about the photo opportunity that comes with it.
Seah shared that she is now able to tell these companies apart, having experienced it a number of times in the past three years.
“Some corporate companies are really just driven by the (CSR) hours. They just want a photo-op and don’t really care about helping us with operations,” said Seah.
“They would order food online and have it delivered to their office to take a photo. They’ll then request for us to go to their office to pick those items up when they could have just delivered them to us straight.”
Teng, who was an awardee at the 2018 National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) President’s Volunteerism and Philanthropy Awards (PVPA), described such behaviour as “self-serving” – it makes the person giving feel better about themselves. She believes there has to be proper intention behind giving or volunteering instead, and says a conversation about this issue is needed.
“I don’t think that’s being advocated for or spoken for, and so what we get is people who come in with very different expectations of what they want from the volunteer experience, or what they want from donating,” said Teng.
She also recounted a recent experience where a school teacher emailed her to ask if the school could bring their students to give their “unwanted items” to children in need. The teacher also said that they wanted the students to take photos with those in need so they would know how fortunate they are.
“First of all, what makes you think that our kids want unwanted items from another person?” asked Teng. “If they were to read the email themselves, how would you think they would feel?
“Children are not zoo animals. It’s almost like you are posing with them to make yourself feel good, and to make your kids feel better about their circumstances.
“Where do we draw a line with that? It’s kind of a challenge we’ve faced in our programme,” she added.
Some volunteers who offered their time are no better either. Teng recalled an instance when one volunteer came in to help out for a day, only to ask for a character reference for his citizenship application at the end of the session. When his request was denied, he threw a fit.
There was also another volunteer who came in and started imposing her ideas on others. It was later revealed that the volunteer was actually taking part in a beauty pageant, and that she needed to do something for charity in order to win.
Such incidents have left regular volunteers with Blessings in a Bag frustrated and “quite jaded to the point they find it very hard to connect with new volunteers”, said Teng.
She hopes that those looking to donate or volunteer can bring it upon themselves to ask the organisation first how they can truly help, and how they can make a difference. It is also crucial to understand that what you want to do may not be helpful to the organisation.
“Asking the question about how I can truly help will already put you in a better space than coming in with your big preconceived ideas to do something,” she explained.
“It’s not about how we feel, after all. It’s about how the person receiving help feels.”
So if you were thinking about donating during this Christmas season, pause to consider: Are you truly doing it because you want to give, or is it to make you feel good about yourself as the year comes to an end?
Because if it is the latter, there are certainly other ways of going about it instead of troubling charities which are struggling to cope with the demands of the season.
Or you could give the charities a call again in March, when their supply of kindness from the festive season is depleted.