7 Ways to Give Back This Holiday Season

Embrace the spirit of giving by volunteering, donating much needed items, and more.

A family volunteers at a food bank together.
Now's the perfect time to lend a helping hand.
Halfpoint / Shutterstock

The holidays can bring out the best in us and remind us what truly matters. While it’s tempting to make the last few weeks of the year about indulging ourselves and taking a much needed break, it’s much more gratifying to turn our time off and added cheer into something meaningful, whether through donations or hands-on work that brightens the community.

After all, “a life lived for others is the only life worth living,” according to Albert Einstein.

Want to tap into your generosity but don’t know where to start? Here’s a list of practical ways to give back—on your own or with your family. Who knows? Your actions may just inspire others to follow suit.

Give time.

Time is one of the most powerful things you can give. To find opportunities near you, search on VolunteerMatch or Idealist, or reach out to local organizations that could benefit from assistance. You can serve animal shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals, senior living facilities, or anywhere else where there’s a need.

If you’re blessed with a particular talent or skill, use it for good—offer to edit a college application, treat someone in need to a haircut, design or code a nonprofit’s website, or advocate for someone who doesn’t have anyone else to speak up for them.

And to check two boxes at once—serving your community and instilling strong values in your children—volunteer as a family. Doing Good Together, a nonprofit that aims to connect families with organizations in need of volunteers, has great ideas for where to start.

A woman goes through her clothes to donate items to charity.

Pass along unused items.

Halfpoint / Shutterstock

Give stuff.

The next time you KonMari your belongings, put your decluttering efforts to good use: Donate jackets to One Warm Coat, toys and books to local children’s hospitals, clothes and toiletries to women’s shelters, old towels to a vet or animal shelter, or offer up home goods on Freecycle or your local Buy Nothing group. You can put nonperishables into local food bins or community fridges, or participate in a nearby food drive. Keep in mind that what you give doesn’t have to be tangible—you can also donate things like airline miles or credit card points to organizations such as UNICEF, the Red Cross, and Make-A-Wish.

Love to find the perfect gift or play Santa? Adopt a family in need in your community through the The Salvation Army or a nearby social services nonprofit and fulfill their holiday wishlist. After you shop for their requested items, you anonymously drop off the gifts at the charity so the family can receive them in time for Christmas.

You can also simply hand out warm clothes, new shoes and socks, gift cards, or food to people in need in your community. Take Mother Teresa’s advice here: “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.”

Give money.

If you’re looking for a meaningful place to donate money, think about which causes and issues are most important to you and your family. Then search Charity Navigator or GuideStar to find effective organizations to support. To double your impact, ask whether your (or your spouse’s) employer matches donations.

Still stumped? Look to your social circle. Do any of your pals or relatives work for a nonprofit or sit on the board of a charitable foundation? Do you have friends who fundraise via email or social media? You can give money anonymously or as a gift in your friend’s name. Simply print out the receipt, fold it into a card, and you’ve got yourself a tax-deductible, altruistic, non-consumptive way to check that person off your list. 

Smart Tip: You can also use AmazonSmile to support a charity. When you use the URL, half a percent of whatever you buy goes toward whichever nonprofit you choose, at no extra cost to you.

Volunteers remove plastic pollution from the sand in Cannon Beach, Oregon.

Volunteers remove plastic pollution from the sand in Cannon Beach, Oregon.

Justin Bailie

Give stewardship.

The planet is deserving of our generosity too, and the holidays are the perfect time to become more mindful of how we consume and conserve resources. Have you been thinking of making a big, positive environmental move such as eating less meat, trading your gas guzzler for an electric vehicle or a public transit pass, or installing solar panels? Make it your New Year’s resolution, then follow through. (AAA Members get a $1,000 rebate when buying or leasing solar panels from SunPower.) You can also pick up trash on your next walk or join a community cleanup, especially if you live close to a beach, river, or creek. Your local environmental organizations, state or national parks, or city hall will have information about when these will happen near you.

Give kindness.

Being benevolent should be for the betterment of others, of course—but it doesn’t hurt that it helps you too. In fact, being kind makes you less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, cancer, and heart disease, according to UCLA scientists

So resolve to extend a hand wherever you see an opportunity. Help friends or neighbors hang lights, clean gutters, or shovel walkways. Give a busy mom the afternoon off while you babysit. Invite an elderly neighbor over for outdoor tea. Extend your altruism to strangers too: Buy coffee for the person behind you, let someone go ahead of you in line at the grocery store, spend time with the lonely pets at your local animal shelter. Commit random acts of kindness that may inspire others to pay it forward.

Give blood (or more).

People don’t realize how dire the need for blood is until they have a loved one on the gurney—someone in the U.S. needs blood every two seconds, and there’s not nearly enough of it to go around. The good news is that it’s easy to donate blood or platelets. Help bridge the gap by finding a blood drive near you and parting with one of your 10 pints. Your body will replenish that amount of blood in less than six weeks, and your donation can save three lives, especially if you’re type O. To take it a step further, you can also organize a blood drive, register as an organ donor, or get tested to find out if you’re someone’s bone marrow match.

Give thanks.

Living in gratitude is a fairly certain path toward happiness, or at least contentment. And telling others that you’re grateful for what they do motivates them to keep doing it. So express gratitude whenever it’s appropriate—to the restaurant server who brings your food, to the janitor who keeps your child’s school clean, to the nurse who cares for your relative. And, of course, to the people whom we rely on for our safety and security. You can always say “Thank you for your service,” but if you feel inspired to do more for your city’s first responders, there are many ways to brighten their day. Hand-write and deliver thank you cards to your nearest fire station. Bring a home-cooked meal or a box of baked goods to the police department. If you see someone in uniform dining at a restaurant, you can anonymously pick up their tab. Or get the whole family involved to send care packages to deployed soldiers.

In the end, it matters less how you choose to give back to your community—the important thing is just that you do, in a way that feels right to you. Saint Francis of Assisi said it best: “For it is in giving that we receive.”

This article was first published in October 2019 and last updated in November 2021.