Donating Food vs Raising Money: What Should You Give to Charity?

Nicolas Cesare  | 

Canned food drives have become a holiday tradition. Whether it’s at your place of work, the community library, or your child’s school, you can expect to encounter at least one collection box for canned food during the holidays. However, while non-perishable food items are a very popular donation, are they really the best way to give during the holidays? Between cash and food, what is the best thing to give during this holiday season?

Pros of Donating Food

Food donations are something that many of us grew up with. You probably remember bringing in a few cans of tomato soup to school in backpacks, handing them forward at the beginning of class — a lesson from our parents and teachers about giving during the holidays. We don’t just donate food for tradition’s sake, though. There are some real benefits to donating food during the holidays.

  • Everybody needs food. Items like clothing won’t fit the needs (or bodies of everyone) during the holiday season, and other household items may or may not find a good use–but everybody needs to eat, and food donations directly help to fill that need during the holidays.
  • Food is cheap to donate. Canned food items are often extremely cheap, making it easy for one person to donate enough to feed a family during the holiday season.
  • Many people are inclined to donate food. Tradition has left many people with a predisposition towards donating food. Even if a person wouldn’t usually donate money or bigger items, they might still donate food out of habit.

Cons of Donating Food

In spite of their place in American culture, food donations might not actually be the best thing that you can do to help charities or those in need. Here are some reasons why.

  • The need for food isn’t as great as you might think. As NPR notes, there is actually a food surplus in the United States. The trouble comes in getting that food to the people who need it. In fact, half of the food left in collection boxes may never be used.
  • Food donations are on a timer. Although charities encourage non-perishable items and many canned food items will last quite a while, they don’t last forever. Again, if the food doesn’t get where it is really needed in time, it goes to waste.
  • Food donations only fulfill a seasonal need. Food donations are mostly built around the idea that everyone deserves to have a good holiday meal. This is true, and donations can go a long way to improving the holiday season for those in need, but many families who are experiencing rough times have a need that extends beyond the holiday season.

Pros of Donating Money

Money is easily the most flexible way to donate. Once once you’ve found the best charity to donate to, you can send you money in and the fine people there will figure out where it can be put to the best use. Money is a great alternative to donating food during the holidays.

  • Money is flexible. Like we said, money can go to use on almost any problem that families in poverty are struggling with. Money can be used to buy food, but it can also fulfill other needs, like utilities bills during the winter, transportation, or job training to help those in poverty to get back on their feet. Unlike food, there are fewer logistical barriers to getting it where it is needed quickly.
  • Money is easy to donate. Donating food often requires driving to the store, getting a bunch of cans, and then finding a collection box to drop them in. Donating money during the holidays is easier than it’s ever been. These days it can be as simple as donating through a charity’s website using your credit card.
  • Money donations can be recurring. Although food collections usually only happen during the holidays, you can donate money at any point in the year. Some people choose to set up a Paypal recurring donation in order to donate at regular intervals. Better yet, you can set up an automatic payment on your credit card so that your spare money is consistently going out to fill a need in the world.
  • Money is easy to track. Although we all give during the holidays to help those in need, it certainly doesn’t hurt that there are some tax benefits in it as well. Monetary donations are very easy to track for tax deductions when April rolls around. You may get a receipt from the grocery store when you buy canned foods to donate, but it is harder to prove this food went to charity, and not into your kitchen. Donation receipts from your charity of choice are standard for cash or other monetary gifts.

Cons of Donating Money

Monetary donations have lots of great benefits for those in need, but there are some concerns that people have about donating money during the holidays.

  • Scams often ask for money. Scammers can’t do much with canned food, so they usually ask for money and especially for cash. Watch out for holiday charity scams and donate with your credit card when possible. Credit card donations make it possible to retrieve the donation with a chargeback in case you make a mistake.
  • Not all money goes to those in need. When you donate money, some of it needs to go to cover administration costs. This isn’t really avoidable, and the overhead should be lower for managing money compared to moving food donations around, but you can aim to minimize this. Research your charities beforehand and find the best charity to donate to with the lowest overhead.

The holidays are a time for giving and one of the best ways to give is to send money to charities that help those in need. Remember to research charities before donating in order to avoid scams and make sure that your donation goes as far as it can to help families in need. If you’re unable to donate food, you can always find other ways of giving during the holidays.


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Nick Cesare is a writer from Boise, ID. In his free time he enjoys rock climbing and making avocado toast.

This post was updated November 13, 2017. It was originally published October 12, 2017.