We think of Thanksgiving and Christmas as a season for giving. More and more though, we also remember that Thanksgiving commemorates a time of taking, when several hundred years ago, my ancestors took land from people who already lived on this continent.
A month ago, as my wife and I thought about the season of giving that was approaching us, we decided we wanted to try a giving experiment. During the month of November, we would give $20 to everyone who asked us, whether that was on the street, through mail or email, in church, or anywhere we were, if someone or some organization directly asked us for money, we would give them $20.
When the month of November began, I wondered how many thousands of dollars we would give to others during the month. After all, we recognize November as a gearing up month. It is getting cold outside and organizations are getting ready, preparing for the Thanksgiving to Christmas ask when non-profits receive a high percentage of the total amount of money they receive each year.
Nationwide, I learned, more than one-third of annual charitable giving takes place in the months of November and December.
In fact, the Harris organization says that 85% of Americans have donated to a charitable organization and more than a third of us are more likely to give during the Holiday season. My own organization, Mennonite Central Committee, a church-based relief and development organization operating in almost 60 countries around the world, receives at least 30% of its total contributions in the months of November and December in a typical year.
In our giving experiment, during November, my wife and I received only 49 direct requests for contributions, less than half of the over 100 I originally expected. A half dozen were from our own church, Eighth Street Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., mostly through the Sunday morning offering and three were from my own organization, MCC. Eighteen more were from Mennonite and Anabaptist related organizations, our own faith tradition, including three denominations and a number of denominational schools and healthcare agencies.
Fourteen of the requests were local and 14 were more global in nature. The local Food Bank of Northern Indiana and Faith Mission, as well as the more global World Vision, Heifer International and Habitat for Humanity were all on the list.
Many requests, of course, were from organizations we had already given to, but we also received an array of requests from other local and national agencies we had never supported before with a contribution.
The themes of all the requests were pretty consistent: Make a difference, change a life and offer hope.
Some request were very practical and specific and others were more theoretical and long view oriented. With one contribution, we helped people who couldn't afford the medications they needed. With another contribution, the organization told us that our gift made us a peace builder and a change maker.
Certainly the biggest mistake I made in giving for the month was pulling out a $20 bill from my wallet in a gathering of Amish and conservative Mennonites to support their meat canning efforts for MCC, In a culture where modesty is as valued as generosity, this was a much too much "showy" response on my part!
What did we learn during the month?
We learned that we aren't as bombarded with contribution requests as we thought. We also learned that there are so many good organizations out there, local and global, who are simply trying to respond to people in need and who desperately need our support.
We learned how quickly we disregard mass mailings from many worthy organizations. Many times during the month, a mailing nearly went in the trash before we remembered that there might be a request for a contribution in that envelope!
We learned that we don't receive many random requests. Most of the requests we received were from organizations we already knew well. And nobody personally asked me to help financially with a personal need. That says more about the upper middle class neighborhood I live in than it does about the needs that are present in my town and community.
On Thanksgiving day, an eclectic group of people gathered around our Thanksgiving table, including our son, extended family members, an older adult from church, another good friend whose spouse unexpectedly died during the year, and several friends of friends who are now our friends. It was truly an occasion to be thankful for these relationships God has blessed us with.
During these months when we receive so much from others, it is a time to also remember as an opportunity to generously share what we have with people close by and around the world. May it truly be a season for giving.
Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. He and his spouse, Mim Shirk, live in Goshen, Indiana.