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(Alternative) giving guide: How to make the most of your charitable spirit this holiday season

Philly's problems aren't solvable through simple acts of charity or kindness, but every little bit helps.

Philly's problems aren't solvable through simple acts of charity or kindness, but every little bit helps.
Philly's problems aren't solvable through simple acts of charity or kindness, but every little bit helps.Read moreistock (custom credit) / Getty Images/iStockphoto

In Philadelphia, need goes well beyond just holiday charity. Twenty-six percent of our population is living in poverty, we are the poorest big city in America, and we’re the only big city in this country that is getting poorer. Recently we learned another hard truth: Unlike in the rest of the country, now more Philadelphians are also hungry. Over 300,000 Philadelphians experienced hunger from 2015 to 2017, around 18 percent of the city’s population.

Philly’s problems are not something solvable through simple acts of charity or kindness. It takes leadership, jobs, education, and a coming together of Philadelphians around a common purpose — lifting all boats, so our city is the best that it can be.

As we head into the holidays, it’s a good time to consider what we all can do to relieve the effects of poverty for some of the 400,000 residents living below the poverty line in Philadelphia, now and into the next year. Here are a few ideas to get you started:


Don’t just donate your used clothes, or send your local schools and nonprofits what you think they need. Ask organizations what they most need help with — it might surprise you. And, do the same with people in your community who you know are in need. This has several benefits: You can provide the child care, or SEPTA Key Card, or warm coat, or whatever that will get them through in the short term. And, it can help you understand what’s really important.


Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is a scant $7.25 an hour — well below a living wage for even a single person in Philadelphia. That’s why socially conscious business owner Ken Weinstein founded Wage Change, a voluntary effort among small businesses to increase the minimum wage. So far, Wage Change has over 50 participating businesses that you can support by spending your money there: Check out the list, which includes places like Weinstein’s Trolley Car Diner, Night Kitchen Bakery, Tria Cafe, Philly Fair Trade Roasters, and more. If you own a small business, consider joining the Wage Change movement and increasing your staff’s hourly wage to $11 an hour by Jan. 1, 2020.


Philadelphians flock to volunteering opportunities during the holiday season, but hunger relief organizations in the city stress that the most need starts after the new year. The months of January through August, dubbed the “Heat or Eat” months, are when many low-income families have to choose between eating and heating (or cooling) their homes. It’s also when many nonprofits see a massive decrease in volunteerism and donations.


Consider a different sort of holiday volunteering that is unique to our time and place: According to the Surveillance for Violent Deaths, drug overdoses increase during the holiday season, something especially problematic in Philadelphia, a nexus for opioid addiction. Prevention Point, the Kensington-based nonprofit that has been tackling the drug crisis since 1992, offers an array of services including case management, medical care, overdose prevention education, and naloxone distribution. They are always looking for volunteers and donations.


Here’s a startling statistic: While 41 percent of Philadelphia is African American, only 2.4 percent of businesses are black-owned. What’s more egregious is that minority business owners pay higher interest rates from banks on average. This holiday season, be a conscious consumer and consider shopping at black-owned businesses around the city. That not only supports African American families but also keeps money in neighborhoods where they live and work. Go to iBuyBlack to find a selection of African-American-owned restaurants, nonprofits, Realtors, and more around the city. And, check out the local chapter of the African American Chamber of Commerce for others.


Making room for a new passel of books on your shelves over the holidays? Consider donating your used books to incarcerated Philadelphians, to help them learn and connect while they are in jail. The local nonprofit Books Through Bars collects and distributes free books and educational materials to Philadelphians behind bars. You can also volunteer to sort and deliver books.


Philabundance is responsible for distributing about 24 million pounds of food each year to our hungry neighbors throughout Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. During the Thanksgiving season, they are one of the biggest facilitators of food drives and volunteer opportunities. An even easier (and tastier) way to give is by purchasing their line of “Abundantly Good” cheeses — distributed in partnership with Riverwards Produce, the Common Market, and the Third Wheel Cheese Company — from DiBruno Brothers, or online. Word on the street is that they are perfect for your mac-and-cheese recipe.


The Nationalities Service Center welcomes over 30 refugees and immigrants to Philadelphia every month and provides them with a wide array of services from language access and proficiency, legal protections and remedies, community transition and integration, and more. To continue to meet the increasingly complex needs of immigrants and refugees, the NSC relies on donations from the surrounding community. There are numerous ways to help the NSC, including monetary donations and buying items to furnish immigrant homes. Or, volunteer with HIAS, the 135-year-old refugee settlement group, for anything from child care to mental-health services to communications.


Buy soaps, candles, coasters, and other gifts created by residents from Project HOME’s HOME Shop, with proceeds going to support employment opportunities for 40 residents. Donate to Adam Kesselman’s City Bright, which offers shelter residents throughout the city the opportunity to earn $20 — and a letter of reference — on Saturday mornings for 2.5 hours of work picking up litter in their neighborhoods. Support companies that intentionally hire people who have been homeless, like Saxby’s, First Step Staffing, and Keystone First. Better yet: Hire someone who is homeless yourself. The Chamber of Commerce’s Roadmap for Growth Action Team can help.


Mighty Writers serves 3,000 Philadelphia kids every year through tutoring, college essay workshops, summer camps, and countless other programs. Its mission is to show students that writing takes place outside of the classroom every day. Mighty Writers has six locations throughout the city, plus one in Camden. You can help in whatever way best suits you: as a teaching assistant, tutor, mentor, workshop instructor, or a volunteer at public events. To fill out a volunteer registration form, click here.


Did you know that every year food pantries receive too much cranberry sauce? They also get too much canned green beans and stuffing. Instead of buying what you think food pantries need and delivering them in person, you can actually buy what they need most by starting a food drive online. Through Philabundance’s “Virtual Food Drive” you can start your own team, join a team, or even just contribute individually to make sure that your dollars are used in the best way possible.


Are you a lawyer? Then consider signing up for Philadelphia VIP, a pro bono legal hub, which currently has 351 cases in need of volunteer support. The Senior Law Center, which protects the rights of older Pennsylvanians, has trained Volunteer Paralegals for its SeniorLAW Helpline, which offers free and confidential legal counseling. And, Community Legal Services, which provides accessible legal assistance for tenants and others, is always looking for volunteers (with and without legal training) to help. Apply here.


Currently on the floor of Congress is the Farm Bill. The most controversial update to the bill called for stricter requirements to receive food stamps through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP), cutting nearly $17 billion from the program’s spending by 2028 by ending or reducing benefits for nearly two million people. According to Philabundance’s Retamar, SNAP provides “twelve times more help than any food bank in the country can,” so it’s a good thing it looks like the bill will pass without those changes. Click here to contact your elected member of Congress to assert your support for SNAP.


Once the back-to-school season ends, teachers often have trouble keeping their classrooms well-stocked with reading materials. Thankfully, Philadelphia Reads’ Jacoby Book Bank provides teachers with up to 350 books per year for their classrooms. All books are donated through community book drives and monetary donations. You can support Jacoby Book Bank by becoming a member for $20 a year or purchasing a book from the registry here.


Our furry friends need help as well. With winter quickly approaching, foster homes are at the heart of PAWS’s ability to save the lives of many homeless animals. There are many kinds of animals that need help — ranging from newborn kittens to elderly dogs. If you open your home for just a few weeks, you can rescue a homeless pet and help it become a well-loved companion.


The name says it all: One Warm Coat is a national nonprofit that works to provide a free, warm coat to any person in need. Since its inception in 1992, the organization has provided over 5.6 million coats to people in need. The organization has drop-off locations all around the Philadelphia area, so grab your slightly used old coat and put it to some good use. We dare you to give more than one.


Thousands of children go to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia every year to support loved ones or seek treatment themselves. Giving children toys to play with is just one way that makes these experiences a little less trying. As such, the hospital is holding a toy drive. Running until Tuesday, Dec. 18, the hospital is accepting new and safe (nontoxic) toys such as books, cards, gaming systems, and more. They also have a shopping list to make things easier. Drop-off date and time need to be requested and confirmed with Matt Piontkowski at


Since 2000, the Latinx population in South Philly has grown from 6,220 to 30,000; of that number, 38 percent live in poverty. Puentes de Salud was founded in 2004 as a nonprofit health and wellness center for Latinx immigrants. Today, their work also includes providing social services and education of all kinds — legal, health-related, or academic. You don’t have to be a doctor to help. Volunteering opportunities range from clinic intake to teaching yoga — check them all out here.


Did you know that on average, Philadelphians leave the highest tips at restaurants? We give around 20.3 percent, compared with the national average of 18.1 percent. Keep up the streak this holiday: As restaurants and bars begin to crowd with friend and family reunions, consider giving a little extra. You’ll be helping someone out during a gift-giving time that’s typically pretty expensive — the National Retail Federation is predicting that this year, consumers will spend an average of $1,007 on items like decorations, candy, and gifts. Don’t forget to extend that to drivers and staff at other establishments, too.


While we’re all recovering from the midterm frenzy and assessing the results, don’t forget to look forward. The next elections are the primaries in May, and it’s never too early to get active and informed. Keep an eye out for politicians, local and national, with a commitment to improving economic conditions and combating poverty. If you’re really brave, you could even broach the subject at a holiday dinner. Good luck with that.

James Meadows, Meerabelle Jesuthsan, and Siobhan Gleason originally wrote this for the Philadelphia Citizen. Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at