Workers from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank distribute boxes of fresh produce to people facing food insecurity in August. Donating cash to food banks allows them to supply produce to people in need more easily. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The most effective way to give this holiday season

Katherine Wiles Nov 25, 2020
Workers from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank distribute boxes of fresh produce to people facing food insecurity in August. Donating cash to food banks allows them to supply produce to people in need more easily. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has left more than 11 million Americans out of work, and 50 million people in the U.S., including 17 million children, are projected to experience food insecurity this year. Demand on food banks is up 60%, and millions will be hungry at Thanksgiving

Canned food drives are probably popping up in your neighborhood this time of year, which got us thinking: what’s the best way to help?

Cash is king

First, monetary donations are far more effective than material ones. Your instinct during a crisis, like a wildfire or a pandemic, might be to donate goods, like blankets, canned food or toothbrushes. 

But Katherina Rosqueta, founding executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, said you should reach for your wallet instead. 

“When you’re trying to figure out how you can help folks who are most affected by COVID or by any crisis or disaster, it is always better to provide cash donations to nonprofits who are providing immediate relief as opposed to making donations of goods,” she said.

That’s true for a few reasons. Financial donations are more flexible. The needs of people in crisis can change weekly, daily or even hourly, and cash donations allow nonprofits to respond to those needs more rapidly.

“You can’t do anything after everybody has gotten the blankets they need, but you still have 100 more blankets,” Rosqueta said. 

Another reason cash is better is because donated goods require a lot of staff and volunteers to manage. And during COVID, a lot of organizations are not working at full capacity, Rosqueta said. 

Even in nonpandemic times, cash creates more of an impact, she said. $10 might get you a couple of canned goods and boxes of pasta at the store, but food banks can make that $10 go exponentially further. Different companies, including wholesalers, supermarkets and farmers, donate their surplus to food banks for the cost of around 20 cents per pound. 

“It includes not just the typical shelf stable, canned foods that we think of when we donate to a canned food drive, but it can also include fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said. “[It’s] nutritious food that for whatever reason can’t be used at the store, at the restaurant or at the supplier, but can be nutritious food for a family in your community who doesn’t know where the next meal is going to come from.”

There’s an environmental upside to this, too, because food banks take in perfectly good food that would otherwise be headed to a landfill

Keep the tradition alive

Even knowing financial donations are far more effective, punching in your credit card number online might not provide the warm fuzzy feeling donating physical goods does.

“Feeling that warm glow that can come from very concrete and sort of tangible volunteerism, don’t trade that off for impact,” Rosqueta said. You can still get that feeling; it just requires a bit more creativity. 

For example, Rosqueta said, a church that did canned food drives changed it up a bit. Instead of cans of food, they collected cans with small monetary donations during their Christmas Eve service. The community got to keep its tradition, and feel connected, while making a much greater impact.

And while donating cash is always effective, donation drives can still be a good way to help those in need. The key is to partner with a nonprofit that has capacity to manage those donations well and has the ability to distribute the donations to the people who need them. Drives can be a great way to mobilize when they’re specific. 

“In addition to filling a real need, it can raise awareness of that need in a community,” Rosqueta said. “It can bring people together in a really nice way, and that’s something that you don’t always get when you’re just writing a check.”

Some quick tips for donating well

“There’s a difference between a great charity, and a great cause,” Rosqueta said. 

Not all charities efficiently use donations to help people. Money can be used for admin or salaries, so doing some quick research is important. Resources like BBB Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Navigator provide financial and organizational information on specific nonprofits. The Center for High Impact Philanthropy’s High Impact Giving Guide also analyzes organizations based on their “ability to make an impact and to do so cost effectively,” Rosqueta said.

Another way to find good organizations is to ask your network and find out which organizations your friends or family have really benefited from. “It’s always great to tap beneficiaries’ perspectives,” Rosqueta said.

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