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As the season of giving ends, individuals and families consider how to make a difference year round
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Like many parents, Nicole Burleigh looked for ways to incorporate charitable giving into her family's Christmas festivities. She and her husband and two kids shopped for presents for foster families and collected money for sick veterans.

They plan to continue volunteering and dropping donations off in the New Year, but it can be hard to figure out how best to serve people in need and know if you're making a difference, Burleigh said.

"I tell my husband, 'I feel like we're not doing enough,'" she said. "We could always be doing more."

Her experience is shared by many people who interact with Americans in need, according to experts on social services. Donations surge during the holiday season and then drop off in the New Year, as families struggle to find volunteering opportunities or commit to serving year-round.

However, a new report from the President's Advisory Council for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships may benefit those searching for new ways to help, whether they want to donate their time as an individual, a family or faith group.

Council members paint a clearer picture of what effective service looks like, highlighting the value of relationships and of partnerships between people at all levels of society. They emphasize poor Americans' need for social, spiritual and emotional resources year-round, instead of just financial handouts.

The report is written for Washington, D.C., policymakers, but it's a reminder to everyone of the power of sharing their time with others, said Michael Wear, who helped coordinate the work of the council while serving in the Obama administration.

"You don't need to be perfect to serve. You don't need to be perfect to care," he said. "The important thing to do is just to start. Get going and you'll figure things out as you go."

A place in the system

The poverty report, like the council that produced it, grew out of the sense that socioeconomic inequality is best addressed when many people and organizations coordinate their efforts, Wear said.

"The government can't provide all of the answers," he added, noting that officials have come to rely on pastors and other community leaders to connect resources with the people who need them.

The report, titled "Strengthening Efforts to Increase Opportunity and End Poverty," refers to congregations and other community groups as "first responders," because they are on the front lines of the fight against poverty. They are aware of the multiple ways a lost job or health crisis can lead to financial instability, said Rev. Jennifer Butler, current chair of the President's Advisory Council for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

"Families who are living in poverty need so many different things: transportation to jobs, clothing and coaching. They need connections," she said.

A single church or nonprofit can't solve these problems, but their members can work in concert with other groups to make a difference, she added.

"The problem is not so much a lack of understanding of what to do, it's more mobilizing the government and community groups in partnership to address it," said the Rev. Butler, who is also the founding executive director of Faith in Public Life, an organization aimed at increasing religious leaders' role in the political system.

This coordination looks a little different for each type of service organization. For example, the Utah Food Bank is focused on hunger in the state of Utah, so it builds partnerships with local volunteers, national food programs and the U.S. government, said Ginette Bolt, chief development officer for the Utah Food Bank.

Participation in Feeding America's national network enables the Utah Food Bank to pay reduced prices for goods from company's like Kellogg's, she said. And working with the government on summer food programs increases the number of kids the organization can afford to serve.

Through this system of support, "We have the ability to understand the needs of our state and the ability to meet those needs," Bolt said. The Utah Food Bank distributes more than 35 million pounds of food annually.

Fostering connections

Beyond looking for volunteer opportunities with organizations that partner with a web of interconnected programs, individuals and families can make a bigger difference by ensuring they're building relationships with people in need, and not simply dropping off a check or pile of Christmas presents, Rev. Butler said.

In the poverty report, she and her fellow members of the advisory council highlighted the need for emotional connections, noting that people in poverty suffer from "fractured relationships and diminished social ties and networks."

This reality is one reason churches and other congregations are such valuable parts of efforts to end poverty, as well as great starting points for people who want to know how they can help their communities, Wear said.

The church "is one of the few remaining institutions that gathers people of different socioeconomic backgrounds together," he said.

During his time at the White House, Wear witnessed faith groups breaking out of their comfort zones to capitalize on their unique positions. Churches could host job fairs, lead job training programs and even provide micro loans to people in their communities.

"Churches have the capacity to put people who might not otherwise have good social networks" into touch with people who can help, he said.

Individuals or families can adopt this approach as well, embracing a little discomfort if it means brightening the day of someone in need, Wear added.

"What feels good as a volunteer isn't always what's most helpful," he said.

Burleigh has tried to bring this spirit to her family's charitable habits. They've been in touch with veterans who are in their city to receive heart transplants since before Thanksgiving, visiting with them at their hotels to learn about how their needs are changing.

"What we're doing right now is trying to collect money for winter gear. The guys come from all over the country and don't always bring hats, gloves and jackets," she said.

Burleigh also tries to introduce her kids to whom they're serving, instead of letting them wait in the car while she drops off care packages.

Additional takeaways

The poverty report was released just before the holiday season when many families ramp up their charitable efforts. Around one-third of donations are made in the final three months of the year, according to the Blackbaud Index, which tracks giving in the U.S.

Increased support for organizations aimed at addressing poverty is something to celebrate, social services experts said. However, they also encouraged people to make time for service year-round.

Volunteer opportunities during the Christmas season at the Utah Food Bank are sometimes booked up "almost a full year in advance," Bolt said. "But come June, July and August, we're desperate."

One of the goals of building networks of support, nurturing relationships between volunteers and people in need and other best practices in the poverty report is to sustain effective community service in every season, not just when it's most convenient for volunteers, Wear said.

"If you look for the perfect opportunity (to give) or for your life to be situated exactly as you want it to be, you're usually not going to find it," he said.

People who are interested in doing more to address poverty should look into the programs already doing some good in their area and find ways to offer their skills or create complementary initiatives, Rev. Butler said.

"It's important for groups to do their research at the local level, to find out where their passion is and see what they feel pulled toward," she said. "It's important to ensure that you're not duplicating efforts."

Sometimes these investigations will lead to unexpected answers, Rev. Butler added.

For example, Faith in Public Life is fighting poverty by working with religious leaders in Columbus, Ohio, to improve relationships between community members and police officers. Inequality in the criminal justice system is one of the structural causes of poverty, she said.

"By having these conversations and fostering dialogues, you can make an enormous difference in people's lives," Rev. Butler said.

Burleigh agreed that one of the best ways to stop feeling overwhelmed by the economic struggles of people in the community is to make oneself available whenever a potential solution or effective program presents itself. She sometimes calls local women's shelter or her children's schools to inquire about what she can do to make a difference.

"If you want to offer help, all you have to do is ask," Burleigh said.
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