Volunteering in Pittsburgh during the holidays? Keep these three things in mind (guest column)

“One of the best things about Pittsburgh is that we have such a large number of talented, generous, compassionate people.”

Get Stuffed with Love volunteers from Lincoln Place Church of the Nazarene readied turkey dinners for 3,500 families on Thanksgiving.

Get Stuffed with Love volunteers from Lincoln Place Church of the Nazarene readied turkey dinners for 3,500 families on Thanksgiving.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
R.J. Hufnagel

Pittsburgh is extremely lucky to have so many compassionate people who choose also to put those feelings into action. For a city our size, we have one of the largest and most vibrant nonprofit communities in the country.

At this time each year, as the holidays arrive, many of those nonprofit organizations see a renewed interest from people who want to contribute to our community in a meaningful way.

Many of you have reached out to organizations like Pittsburgh Cares in recent weeks to find out how you can make a difference. Unfortunately, because the staff and resources of so many local nonprofits are already stretched as far as they can go, often the result is that the supply of holiday goodwill exceeds the ability of the nonprofit community to handle the increased volume of requests.

So, if you are interested in contributing time, goods or money this holiday season, here are some tips to make sure that you maximize the impact of your gift.

First, find out the best way to help

If you truly want to help, the best way to start is to first determine the most urgent need of the organization you want to support.

Consult with your chosen nonprofit(s) well in advance to see how you can truly support their work and mission in a way that is most beneficial to them. You also can consult with Pittsburgh Cares, which specializes in organizing customized service days for companies large and small.

For some groups, the best thing you have to give may be your time. Others may need money more than anything. Still others may have specific items or services that would be most beneficial. Remember, you too may have specific skills or connections that would make your contribution unique.

Sometimes, there are items that a nonprofit simply can’t accept. For example, food pantries may have restrictions on what they are able to take due to health and safety issues.

Other times, organizations are desperate for items that people often overlook. For example, domestic violence shelters often need sanitary products. Likewise, organizations serving low-income families or mothers in crisis are often very appreciative of diapers, another item people sometimes forget.

Take a few minutes to place a call or send an email. Ask questions and do some research first, and it will make your contribution far more meaningful.

Spread your goodwill through the year

Remember that people will still be homeless, children will still be hungry, and your neighbors will still need a hand in January and beyond.

Pittsburgh Cares and other local nonprofits get plenty of requests for volunteer opportunities on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and other major holidays. The fact is, though, that there usually aren’t enough volunteer opportunities on holidays to fulfill all of those requests. Yet there’s a tremendous need after Jan. 1, when the goodwill of the holidays may have worn off.

For example, the summer months can be especially difficult for struggling families when young children are no longer in school during the day. Parents must find affordable child care, and children no longer have access to the regular breakfasts and lunches that schools provide.

In addition, training new volunteers at such a busy time of year can take time, money and attention away from other much-needed efforts.

This is not to say that the huge outpouring of support that charitable organizations receive at the holidays is not welcome. Without that spike, many smaller organizations might not survive. Still, if you are able, try to spread your volunteering and charitable giving throughout the year so you can have the greatest possible impact.

Make a long-term commitment

One-time volunteer events or gifts are, of course, appreciated. But the best way to have a long-term impact is to commit to giving or volunteering year in and year out.

If a nonprofit knows that it can count on regular pledges of time or money from individuals or companies, that certainty removes a little bit of the stress many of them feel in constantly pushing to make ends meet.

In addition, regular giving allows you to build a relationship with your chosen nonprofit. As a result, you will feel more engaged in their programs and more invested in the results.

One of the best things about Pittsburgh is that we have such a large number of talented, generous, compassionate people. We believe that we are all in this together, and so many of us act on that belief to make this a better place to live and work.

That’s one reason why we have such an amazing nonprofit community. And with a little help, it can be even better. Spend some time or some money to lift up your neighbors, and lift up our city, by contributing to a cause or to a community that you care about — now and throughout the year.

R.J. Hufnagel is the president of the board of directors of Pittsburgh Cares, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and HandsOn Network affiliate. Founded in 1992, Pittsburgh Cares acts as a liaison between volunteers, nonprofits, and businesses to meet the most critical needs of the Western Pennsylvania community.