It’s winter. There’s no getting around it, denying it, bargaining with it, raging against it – it’s colder than a really cold thing. It’s also the “holiday season” when we get whipped up into a consumerist frenzy and fray our nerves trying to figure out what to give to whom and how much to spend doing it. And its the end of the year so all kinds of businesses – and charities – are trying to close their books and make their quotas. All of this collided in my inbox at work this week with this message that bought all kinds of thoughts and emotions.

Subject: PLEASE READ: This Years Holiday Drive

Happy Holidays All,

In the spirit of giving this time of year, Ipswitch employees come up with ideas every year to give back to the little ones during this holiday season. This year we are going to support Cradles to Crayons with their efforts to collect the following (in this order!!):

– Coats (new or gently used…sizes needed below)
– Socks (NEW)
– Undergarments (NEW)
– Pajama’s (NEW)

For newborns to pre-teenage children!! If you need ideas please ask me but refer to list below for the sizes in need…we can’t fill them all but anything helps!

2T 3T 4T 5/6 7/8 9/10 11/12 14/14+ 16/16+
Boys Winter Coats
2,532 287 128 95 137 106 173 208 320 294 151 203 331 100
Girls Winter Coats
2,417 259 121 90 152 101 148 176 316 306 133 185 330 100

They are also looking for “new and/or gently used” winter garments (boots, hats, gloves) for the same ages.

I am hoping every employee in Lexington can drop off one of the above (more if you can!) to my office and then I will deliver them all on December 14th to Cradles to Crayons in Quincy, MA. That gives you all 9 shopping days J

Thank you ALL for your generosity and kindness, as always!

Let’s look at the underlying need here – there is an organization in Boston that needs five thousand winter coats for children. Five thousand children in and around Boston don’t have winter coats. I don’t know if Cradles to Crayons are even trying to address the totality of local need. It’s not that big a city or even that big a state – this seems an appalling number. Look at the difference in impact those number make in this message compared to a more generic, “we need warm clothes for kids.”

There are about 80 people working at the Lexington office – that’s about 62 coats per person, an impossible goal to be sure, but fortunately we’re not the only ones working on this. I wonder if we would do better to concentrate on a single age group or a smaller goal that we might meet, like one coat per person.

I don’t have access to any “gently used” children’s clothing although I could probably try to gather some from friends. I shopped around online and found cheap but respectable-looking children’s winter coats – a puffy down coat in a small size can be had surprisingly inexpensively, and if you’re not picky about size or color, you can do even better – and ordered a batch drop-shipped to HR. I didn’t buy 62 coats, not even close, but I think I moved the needle a bit. If there’s a coat drive where you live, you might try these links or do your own search.

bubblejacket.jpg bubblejacket2.jpg

As soon as I clicked to confirm my order, I started to wonder if I had approached this the right way. It has become fashionable to link charity contributions very directly with the goods or services and even with the recipients. This is good marketing – you feel better about giving a winter coat to a cute kid whose name and face you know than you do giving a few bucks to an organization that works to clothe unnamed kids. Plus, it makes the donor less concerned about the money being eaten up by overhead costs.

If that coat you give is one your own kid no longer wears, that’s a clear win for everybody. But if you do as I did and spend money on buying, and then shipping, a coat which then has to be transported so it can be sorted and given to a child, have you really delivered the best charity return on your financial investment?

Did I take the easy way out when there might have been an even easier way that’s also better? Wouldn’t I have delivered more value to the needy by simply writing a check? I would have saved the shipping cost on the coats I bought, and if the organization wanted to use my money to buy coats, they probably would get a better deal in bulk than I did online, and if they want to use my money to buy office supplies or some other unglamorous necessity, would that in any way devalue my contribution?

Charity isn’t about the warm fuzzy feeling the donor gets, it’s about improving the situation of the disadvantaged. As I’m fond of saying, I’d rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong, so over analyze as I’ve done if you like, but at the end of the day, just do something that helps.