Gerry Melendez—MCT via Getty Images
By Martha C. White
November 19, 2015

Generosity around the holidays is great, but sometimes it can be a bit misplaced. (See: Every well-intentioned but unwanted gift you’ve ever gotten.) When Thanksgiving rolls around, the equivalent of slipper socks that don’t fit for hunger-prevention charities is people who show up at their door unannounced, asking if they can lend a hand.

It’s not that these charities, which largely depend on volunteer workers to feed the needy, don’t welcome the willingness to help. It’s just that if you plan to volunteer on Thanksgiving, there are already so many pairs of hands on deck that you could be in the way. (Think of your own Thanksgiving dinner. Odds are, you’ve either shooed out would-be helpers or have been shooed out when you got underfoot.)

“Hunger isn’t just a holiday issue,” says Clay Dunn, communications director at Share Our Strength. “There are many ways for individuals to get involved throughout the year.”

Charities that feed the hungry — whether they’re cooking food in a soup kitchen or delivering the fixings for a turkey dinner — do extensive prep work to be ready for their clientele on the big day, and getting neophytes up to speed isn’t on the menu.

“Charities of all types can get overwhelmed with the generosity of volunteers during Thanksgiving and the December holidays,” says Eileen Heisman, CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust, one of the organizers behind #GivingTuesday. The time and effort it takes to train new volunteers is a drain on charities’ already stretched resources during this busy season. “It’s better to let a charity’s core volunteer group manage these critical days,” she says.

At the very least, notes Feeding America spokesman Ross Fraser, “people interested in volunteering should always call ahead of time to make sure there is room for them.”

Charity professionals advise that if you want to volunteer, there are other days you should circle on your calendar when they really need your help. According to Meals on Wheels of San Francisco, it’s the minor holidays that often get overlooked: Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day are good days to lend a hand because that’s when it can be hard to recruit people to come work.

“The real need for volunteer support is when the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is over,” says Meals on Wheels of San Francisco CEO Ashley McCumber, who adds that the organization delivers more than 2,200 meals each week.

“I recommend planning to volunteer two weeks prior or two weeks after Thanksgiving,” Heisman says. “Helping a food bank get the infrastructure together to service people in need is much more helpful,” she points out. If you really must help out on Thanksgiving, skip the midnight Black Friday mall trip and offer to pitch in on cleanup duty.

Another great time to get started volunteering is in the summer months. “Summer is always the toughest time for us, because so many kids lose access to free or reduced price lunch and breakfast,” Fraser says. Religious and social groups that do food drives don’t organize as much in the summer, and social programs that run around the school schedule are shut down. What’s more, Fraser says, it just doesn’t occur to many people to volunteer in the summertime. “Part of this is being mindful that hunger happens day in and day out,” he adds.

If you’re determined to do something on Thanksgiving itself but you don’t have any ties to an organization, charity professionals say the best thing you can do is write a check. And after the holidays, once you’ve found a charity you’d like to continue supporting with your sweat equity, stick with it. “People don’t realize how expensive it is… to train and orient a new volunteer,” Heisman says. To make your time as meaningful to the charity as it is for you, make sure you volunteer at least four days over the course of the year, she advises.

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