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Holiday Volunteering | 5 Ways to Get Creative

Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow


Volunteering around the holidays has gotten so popular that some organizations fill their volunteer slots within just hours or days after making sign-ups open to the public. That means if you want to add a little extra meaning to your holiday season, you may need to get more creative.

Here is a compilation of volunteer suggestions for you to explore as 2018 comes to a close, each of which falls into one of four main categories:

  • Donating needed items
  • Connecting with people who are homebound
  • Giving to a family in need
  • Supporting refugees in your community

Pro Tip: If you're looking for a group opportunity, we’ve noted a few ideas that can be great group activities with friends or coworkers.

Donating needed items

First things first! If you're interested in donated items, it's important to check with service providers in your area about what they need. After all, you don’t want to saddle a nonprofit organization with dozens of cans of green beans if their food shelves are fully stocked and what they most need is toiletries.

Many organizations make holiday wish lists or post a list of the most in-demand items on their website. Some unexpected yet common items you may find on these lists include:

  • Toilet paper
  • Toothbrushes, toothpaste, and other dental hygiene items
  • Bandages and other first-aid items
  • Underwear and socks
  • School supplies
  • Diapers
  • Gently used bras
  • Sanitary pads or tampons

If you can’t easily find a list of requested items, call the organization and ask. Also be sure to check in on how they would prefer the donated items be packaged and delivered, if they have set hours for drop-offs, and if they can arrange a pickup for larger donations.

Pro Tip: This is an easy activity to do with coworkers. If you want to organize a donation drive at your workplace, talk to your human resources department or the person who tends to organize office-wide activities.

Once you have approval to organize an office-wide drive, post flyers in high-traffic spots around the office (kitchen, copy room, elevators, etc.) that included a list of the requested items. Indicate on the flyer whether items have to be new or if they can be gently used, where people can drop off their donations, and a deadline.

Connecting with people who are homebound

The holidays can be a particularly lonely time for people who can’t easily leave home. Volunteering with your local Meals on Wheels program is always an option, but it’s not the only way to bring holiday cheer, meals, or other services directly to the homebound in your community.

Consider one of these suggestions to connect with people who are homebound this holiday season:

  • Contact local hospitals, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes to find out about potential opportunities. One easy thing you may be able to do is make holiday cards that they can distribute to residents.
  • Check with local houses of worship to see if they have a home visiting program for members of the congregation who are sick or homebound.
  • Ask your county or city department of aging about volunteer opportunities. For example, the Baltimore County Department of Aging in Maryland organizes volunteers to provide in-home and telephone visits to homebound seniors in the county.
  • Search for a local aging nonprofit organization on the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging website (you can search by city and state or by ZIP code) and ask them about volunteering opportunities around the holidays.

Giving to a family in need

There are many ways to support families in need around the holidays. Try one of these:

  • Donate grocery or big-box store gift cards or public transit passes to an organization that works with struggling families.
  • Purchase a commissary gift card to help military families cover the cost of their groceries.
  • Participate in Operation Santa, a program run by the U.S. Postal Service that allows individuals or organizations to “adopt” letters that children have written to Santa Claus and fulfill their Christmas wishes.
  • Contact a family homeless shelter in your community to find out if they have a sponsor-a-family program where you can buy gifts that are on the kids’ wish lists. If sponsoring a whole family is out of your budget, you can team up with friends or coworkers.

Another activity that is best done with a group is Shoes That Fit. Using their welcome packet, you can gather a group of friends or coworkers and pair up with a local school to purchase shoes for students in need.

You can also support families across the globe through charities such as Heifer International and Oxfam America.

Supporting refugees in your community

Although the Syrian refugee crisis has faded from the headlines, families from Syria and other war-torn countries are still fleeing their homes and searching for safety in communities across the U.S. and around the world. The challenges don’t end with resettlement; many families struggle to make ends meet on meager salaries or financial assistance, notwithstanding the emotional challenges of being in a new place, far from home.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) takes volunteers year-round, pending an IRC orientation, interview with IRC staff, and background check.

If you’re not able to make the commitment, other ways to support refugees in your community include:

Making your volunteering count beyond the holidays

The need in your community won’t go away after the holidays, but volunteer interest often fades come January. That’s why one of the most impactful things you can do is to keep volunteering after the holidays are over.

If you’re able to make a longer commitment, you can become a regular volunteer with one of the organizations you connected with over the holidays. Other ways to keep the volunteer spirit going throughout the year include:

  • Checking with local service providers every month or every quarter about items they need. You could talk with your employer about starting a quarterly drive based on what local organizations need, or encourage employees who travel often for business to bring their unused hotel toiletries into the office to donate to a local organization.
  • Filling brown paper bags with an assortment of toiletries and snacks and handing them out to people in need who you may encounter along your commute.
  • Making a monthly donation to support a refugee family.

If you want to take a big step toward instilling a culture of volunteering at your office, ask if your organization would offer paid volunteer time as an employee benefit. They won’t be able to make the change overnight—but the first step is for someone to make the ask.

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Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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