Dani Robbins

Considering Adopting a Family for the Holidays?

In Leadership on December 4, 2013 at 9:07 am

It’s the Holiday season and agencies across the country, and maybe the world, are putting together programs to make sure their clients don’t go without. They are also fielding calls from donors who want to know how they can help. The world is better because of these programs, those donors and their generosity.

I am hopeful that the ways they can help do not include Adopt a Family programs where the donor family meets the family in need. It’s a lose-lose proposition and I have been advocating against such programs for twenty years.

Adopt a Family programs where the agency acts as a middle-man, and neither side meets the other, is a great way to support a family during the holidays! When the agency doesn’t act as the middle-man things tend to go south.

I can totally see why meeting the family is attractive to both sides. It can be a feel good moment when the family in need can express gratitude and the donor family can feel like they are making a difference they can see in the life of a family in need.

The problem is it doesn’t always go like that.

The family in need may not meet the gratitude expectations of the donor family. They may be embarrassed – or resentful – to have someone of means come to their home which may not have heat, may not have furniture and may not have food. They may not be grateful. They may not be even be pleasant.

That’s why I don’t like the program; it’s not a trip to the zoo. It’s not respectful; it’s exploitative. We don’t get to go to the other side of the tracks to see how the other half lives. We visitors from the other side in our nice clothes get out of our nice cars and go back to our nice homes. It’s someone’s life and someone’s family and we don’t have that right.

It’s not always the client either. It works the other way too. The donor family may be disrespectful, judgmental or just plain disdainful.

Why set up either side to fail?

I have given gifts to kids who didn’t say thank you. I have received large checks from donors who called the kids we served “those black kids.” I have had conversations with donors who have no idea the challenges and the sheer willpower it takes to be poor and conversations with clients who feel they deserve whatever it is someone gives them.

I have also, and thankfully far more often, accepted gifts from donors who are so grateful for the world they were born into or created for themselves that they felt they had an obligation to give back. I have also had multiple conversations with clients who were eternally grateful that someone they didn’t know would care enough to make sure their kids had food, clothes and gifts.

I have one other issue with Adopt a Family programs – they eliminate the recipient parent’s ability to receive their own children’s appreciation and see their joy. When you constantly go without, and your children constantly go without, having a day of plenty is an even larger gift than the food or the gifts. Instead of allowing recipient parents to be the gift givers, even the pretend gift givers, to their own children at the holidays, Adopt a Family programs force parents to be in the position of being the gift recipient. They are, but do we always have to remind them of that?

It’s our job as leaders to set people up to fulfill their capacity as healthy, respected, productive members of our community. We can ask the clients who receive gifts to write thank you notes. We can ask our donors to trust us to choose the right family for their giving. We can make sure that everyone who comes into our programs, regardless of where they come from, feels valued, safe and honored by our polices, programs and processes.  We can, and we should.

What’s your take on Adopt a Family Programs?  As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.


  1. Very interesting take and I think something that needs to be said. Well done. I think in theory its a beautiful idea but like many things, good theory isn’t good reality.

    Thanks for being awesome!!


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