This story appears in the winter 2015 edition of CNET Magazine.
It's the time of year we love: a chance to relax with friends and family, and to eat often and well.
But even as we enjoy that feeling of well-being, we know there are plenty of others who are less fortunate. For the homeless, the hungry and the working poor, the holidays can feel like the worst of times -- not the best. And so, in the spirit of the season, we'll throw our dollars into the Salvation Army kettles, toss toys and warm clothes in large collection bins or, if we're feeling especially altruistic, serve the homeless at soup kitchens.
Many of us would probably do more if philanthropy weren't so inconvenient. That's the thinking, at least, of established charitable organizations as well as new apps and websites that make giving as affordable as buying a cup of coffee and as simple as using a smartphone.
Mobile apps Tinbox and Charity Miles, for example, allow you to donate to organizations you want to support without shelling out your own money; they work with corporate sponsors to pay the donation. Then there's the app Instead, which asks people to donate $3 or $5 to help "make life changing, and sometimes life saving, differences to people in need."
The premise: Brew a pot of coffee instead of buying a cup of joe and donate your savings to a good cause. And the Dollar a Day website lets you contribute as much as you want or as little as $1 to that day's featured charity. That $1 donation happens automatically, every day, once you've also signed up with a credit or debit card.
Even tech giant Google is getting into the act. Google.org, the company's charitable arm, says it will donate money during the holiday season whenever anyone uses Android Pay, Google's mobile-payments service.
One dollar from every transaction paid for via Android Pay will go to special needs education programs in the US through the charity DonorsChoose.org. Google will donate up to $1 million dollars.
The venerable Salvation Army is also building websites that make it easy for people to volunteer. "With as large of an organization as ours, we find that some volunteers are impulsive and don't always want to wait," says Laine Hendricks, a Salvation Army spokeswoman.
And the United Nations' World Food Programme hopes people using its just released Share the Meal app will help decrease world hunger. People can donate as little as 50 cents by tapping on the screen of their mobile device. Nearly 800 million people around the world are malnourished, says Constantin Fechner, a Share the Meal spokesman.
The app attempts to reach smartphone users, who outnumber hungry children in the world by 20-to-1, Fechner says. It was developed in response to a $2 billion to $3 billion shortfall in WFP's funding for initiatives in countries including Jordan, where thousands of refugees have fled from Syria's civil war, he adds.
Such apps and websites are a reflection of our on-demand lives. But instead of catering to our need for instant gratification, they help us satisfy our desire to do good. It appears to be working.
Americans donated an estimated $358 billion to charities in 2014, according to philanthropy research organization Giving USA. About 7 percent of that total was donated via apps and websites, says Keith Curtis, who chairs the group. That's up from 1.5 percent in 2004, he says, citing figures from Blackbaud, which tracks charitable giving in North America.
"While that might not seem like a huge number, it will climb over time because it's an easier way to give," says Curtis. "Folks aren't writing checks as they used to."
More than just money
The rise of online donations is great news for Charity Miles, which encourages people to run, walk or bike for corporate donations to organizations like Stand Up To Cancer and Feeding America. Gene Gurkoff, who founded Charity Miles in 2012, remembers almost going broke until sponsors like Johnson & Johnson, Timex, Kenneth Cole and Humana began donating between $25,000 and $100,000 each.
Charity Miles now has 100,000 monthly active members and has raised more than $1 million in donations.
"We've been able to harness the power of walking, running or biking for a cause that's good -- not only for your health, but for your soul," says Gurkoff.
Greg Baldwin couldn't agree more. As president of VolunteerMatch.org, Baldwin oversees a group that helps people volunteer for the causes they care most about. Since 1998, the group has matched nearly 10 million volunteers with more than 100,000 nonprofits across North America.
"We believe everyone has a profound desire to make a difference in society," says Baldwin. "Technology helps create those possibilities that didn't exist before."
Those connections vary. Volunteers have mentored young boys, offered hospice care, built homes for the needy and fed stray cats at a pet shelter. About a quarter of the entire US population engaged in some form of volunteerism in 2014, Baldwin says.
The organization doesn't let others do all the work. This past July, for example, VolunteerMatch's employees served more than 600 meals to poor families and the homeless at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco's hardscrabble Tenderloin district.
"We're practicing what we preach," says VolunteerMatch employee Irina Tikhonova, wearing a hair net and apron as she carries a stack of empty food trays to a dishwasher. Employees spend at least eight hours a month volunteering during work, she says.
Meanwhile, Jim Eyres, 71, of San Francisco plans to spend his 21st holiday season as a bell-ringer beside a red kettle for the Salvation Army. The longtime financier recalls his mother and teachers encouraging him to help others.
"When I hear their little voices -- well for me, shouts -- inside my head, that means I know I'm doing the right thing," he says.
Peaks and valleys
Charity ebbs and flows throughout the year, experts say. The urge to give typically rises in January and February (credit our New Year's resolutions) and wanes come spring. Volunteerism then peaks in the summer and lasts through the holidays.
In fact, a third of all charitable donations are made during the last three months of the year, mostly in December, says Curtis of Giving USA. And nearly 20 percent of all nonprofits get half of their annual donations in the last three months of the year. In 2014, for example, the Salvation Army raised $500 million -- or about 35 percent of that year's $1.4 billion total -- during November and December, says national spokesman Lt. Col. Ron Busroe.
That can play havoc with charities' ability to help those in need. Which is why Baldwin of VolunteerMatch would like to convince people that the gift of giving is something we can enjoy throughout the year.
"Find the causes you care deeply about," he says. "You can make a difference every day."