We’ve always been taught, and on many levels known, that the world is better when we focus our time and energy on giving to others. But as news of global struggles and conflicts reach us through our phones every hour of every day, our desire to help has only grown. And while it may seem overwhelming at times to think that our individual efforts can make a difference, know this: they can. That’s why we’ve rounded up this list of ways, both big and small, that we can all give back during the holidays.

Despite what countless graduation speeches may have told us, it isn’t up to any one person to change the world. On top of that, we don’t have to be solely responsible for massive policy changes. I’ve always believed that it’s my daily choices, behaviors, and support of the organizations I believe in that create cultural shifts. It’s also often the subtle, sometimes unseen, decisions we make each day that can positively impact the lives of others. This is true all throughout the year, but there’s an undeniably warm and fuzzy feeling that comes when you make time to give back during the holidays.

There’s nothing I find more energizing than sitting around a table (or dropping thoughts into a Slack channel) and sharing ideas. Talk to anyone, and most people will immediately name a few charities they’re excited to give to when the holiday season comes around. We asked our editors to share the organizations they love the most, and it turned out that everyone on our team had a different tradition for giving during the holidays. Read on to discover a few of our favorite ways to give back, plus more ideas for spreading goodness and cheer. It’s our hope that this list can inspire everyone to continue to give throughout the holidays and in the new year to come. And please share your favorite ways of giving back with us in the comments section. Happy giving, y’all.

feature image by kristen kilpatrick

Help Serve a Free Meal

“Every December, when school was out for the holidays, my mom, brother, sister and I would get up early to volunteer at our church‘s homeless ministry program. We would serve breakfast to those in need, and sing Christmas Carols. Even though it was a small act that only took a few hours, it was one of my favorite traditions that always left me full of the Christmas Spirit.” — Caroline Pinkston

Warm Someone Up With a Homemade Blanket, Hat, or Scarf

“One of my favorite hobbies is knitting, and there’s little I love more than spending a cozy weekend curled up with a project. Over the past few years, I’ve started donating cold-weather garments (like hats, scarves, and mittens) to local shelters in my area. I have a lot of friends who are big into fiber arts as well, and we’ll get together on a few Saturdays through the season to knit and crochet together. It’s a great way to create community and to provide warmth to those in need. If you’re looking for an organization to donate to, Project Linus distributes homemade blankets to children. Knots of Love also provides people who are going through chemo treatments with handmade beanies and blankets.” — Isabelle Eyman

Operation Christmas Child

“Growing up, my family and I always set aside one evening during the holiday season to fill shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child. The boxes are sent to children in need (many in orphanages!) in more than 100 countries, and it’s so special to be able to choose toys and clothes for a child in a certain age group and spend time thinking about what they’d be delighted to receive. We’d meet up with friends at Target and fill our carts with all our goodies, then go home and have a wrapping party with hot cocoa and Christmas music.” — Camille Styles

Host a Holiday Food Drive

Gather your friends, family, and neighbors for a local food drive! Contact a nearby food bank first to see what they need the most. Get the word out through email, text, or apps like Nextdoor and encourage everyone to donate non-perishable foods. Donating to a food drive is a relatively low-lift way to make a difference in your community. You can learn more about how to host a holiday food drive through the Feeding America website.

Buy Someone’s Dinner

Unexpected, random acts of kindness are oftentimes the best. If you’re in a drive-thru, tell the employee at the window that you’d like to pay for the car behind you. Or, say you’re sitting down at a restaurant, you can kindly ask your server if you can cover the family’s meal at the table next to you. Know that this applies to coffee as well—it’ll likely bring a surprise smile to the face of the person next in line to have their cappuccino paid for by a stranger.

Donate Warm Clothing

With many areas experiencing colder temperatures during this time of year, donating new or gently-used winter weather clothing can have a significant impact on the lives of people in need. Gather up coats or sweaters from your closets, or if you can, purchase a few new items. Research local coat drives in your area or connect with an organization like One Warm Coat for more opportunities to donate. You can even learn more about how to hold a coat drive yourself!

Heifer International

“It’s a Smith family tradition to make a donation to Heifer International each year during the holidays. Heifer is a really neat, forward-thinking organization that helps bring sustainable agriculture and commerce to areas with a long history of poverty. You can give a family a sheep, a pig, a flock of chicks, even a water buffalo! I love getting a picture of the family with the little animals and knowing that my donation is really helping people in need.” — Jenn Rose Smith

Adopt a Family

“Growing up, each year my family would ‘adopt’ a family through my church. The church would provide anonymous descriptions of each of the family members and create a list of gifts and items the children and caregivers wanted and needed. My sisters and I loved picking out presents for the children (who were often around our age), and as we got older, it became more and more meaningful to know that we could do just a little to make others’ holiday wishes come true. Local organizations such as churches, schools, and nonprofits often organize Adopt-a-Family drives and are a great resource if you want to give back in this way.”  — Isabelle Eyman

The Salvation Army Angel Tree

“Every year my family and I donate gifts to kids from The Salvation Army Angel Tree. The tree is filled with cards describing a child in need and what they want for Christmas. We always have so much fun picking out the perfect gift that will put a smile on a child’s face come Christmas morning.” — Carmen Collins

Volunteer Your Time at a Homeless Shelter

While shelters can always use additional volunteer support throughout the year, they’re busier than ever during the holiday season. With colder weather setting in, people need a place to warm up and have a hot meal. Depending on your schedule, you may be able to set aside a whole day for volunteering. However, if you only have a few hours to spare, it can make a world of a difference to set aside some time in the morning, afternoon, or evening to serve in the kitchen, prepare a meal, help with the set-up, or clean. If you feel comfortable, you can also seek out opportunities to volunteer as a family. To connect with a local shelter in your area, visit the National Coalition for the Homeless’ directory.

This post was originally published on December 20, 2019, and has since been updated.

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Comments (4)
  1. 1
    Tess December 11, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    Heartwarming and motivating. Loved thinking about the people who were blessed by these acts of kindness.

    Reply
  2. 2
    TAMIKA J RHODES December 12, 2017 at 2:51 am

    LiveBeyond is always at the top of my giving list – they’re an amazing mission doing on the on-the-ground work in Thomazeau, Haiti. I’ve seen firsthand how they’ve changed a community of about 250,000 people with clean water, fair trade, consistent education and meals, and safe births. You can sponsor a mother, a child or the building of the hospital at livebeyond.org

    Reply
  3. 3
    Molly December 12, 2017 at 10:52 am

    Yay, Heifer! We did the flock of birds last year, and it was so cool! Love that shout out!

    Reply