If the holidays are a time for giving, why do we always expect something in return? With so many people unemployed, homeless and starving today, we cannot afford to sit back and do nothing.

There are plenty of organizations around the country that are committed to helping people in need, but that shouldn't stop you from lending a helping hand this holiday season. You don't have to volunteer every waking hour or donate your retirement savings to a charity in order to give back. Even the smallest deeds, such as visiting a lonely senior citizen on Christmas Day or cooking a meal for a needy family, goes a long way. Here are 20 selfless things to do this holiday season:

1. Volunteer: Volunteering is one of the single greatest things you can do this holiday season and the rest of the year. No matter what you volunteer your time and efforts toward, volunteering is a selfless act that betters the community and brings joy to all players involved.

2. Donate : Donating is another selfless act that you can participate in this holiday season. Donating is easy to do and it makes a big difference. You can donate money to a charity, donate clothes to a homeless shelter or donate food or toys to needy families this holiday season. (Here are 19 environmental charities you should know.)

3. Fundraising: Fundraising is another selfless way to help others this holiday season. Fundraising is the key to raising big bucks for organizations and raising awareness for cause that matters to you.

4. Adopt a family for the holidays: Give a family in need a Christmas they'll never forget, by participating in an adopt-a-family program this holiday season. For each family you adopt, you'll supply them with food certificates, toys for the children, as well as clothing or hygiene products for older kids and adults.

friends giving A great way to spend time with loved ones and to show how much you care is by hosting a dinner. (Photo: Pressmaster/Shutterstock)

5. Cook a meal for others: Treat a family to a home-cooked meal this holiday season. It will mean the world to a family to have a hot meal on a cold winter night.

6. Pay it forward: Make someone's day by paying for their order in a drive-thru line or at a restaurant. They may not get a chance to thank you, but you can be assured they'll be elated by the thoughtful gesture.

7. Play Santa Claus: Instead of exchanging gifts with family and friends this holiday season, play Santa Claus by giving and not receiving. It might test your envy limits, but it will be totally worth it when you see how happy they are.

8. Listen: Taking the time to listen to a coworker who's having a bad day or a complete stranger who needs to vent will be much appreciated. Not interjecting with advice or sharing your opinion can be hard to do at times, but simply listening is much easier and just as effective.

person donating blood Each time you donate blood, you may be helping as many as three people. (Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock

9. Give blood: Donating blood is one of the single most selfless things you can do for others this holiday season and the rest of the year. Just one pint of blood can save up to three lives. Not everyone is eligible to give blood, so check with your local blood center to see if you can give this generous gift.

10. Help for free: Help a neighbor put up their Christmas lights, assist an elderly person when crossing the street or carry a stranger's grocery bags to their car, all for free. These simple acts of kindness go a long way and will be much appreciated.

11. Adopt a pet: Give a dog or cat a home this holiday season by adopting them from a shelter or rescue service. You'll get satisfaction from having a new cuddly companion, and your pet will have a second chance at life. Everyone wins here.

12. Give away something important to you: When it comes down to it, you'd be just fine without your GPS device, iPhone or fancy leather jacket. A true test of selflessness is to give away things that are important to you and enjoy what you already have. You can even sell your items and donate the money to a needy family or charity.

13. Participate in a food drive: Food drives of all kinds help feed families in your community during the holidays. Whether you donate canned goods, produce, turkey gift certificates or sweets, food drives are effective at feeding the hungry. Food drives need your donations, as well as volunteers to help organize the event and deliver food to families.

writing letter Taking the time to write to someone and tell them why you're thankful for them is more important than you may think. (Photo: rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

14. Write letters of appreciation: This holiday season, take the time to write letters of appreciation to people you truly appreciate. Think about the postal service workers, maintenance workers and even your favorite barista, who all make a difference in your day.

15. Babysit for free: It can be very difficult to find a babysitter during the holidays, when parents have shopping, holiday parties and events to attend. Make things easier for a family with young children by offering to babysit for free this holiday season.

feeding people at a soup kitchen Volunteering at a homeless shelter is needed not just during the holidays but all year long as well. (Photo: addkm/Shutterstock

16. Serve food to the homeless: Serving food to the homeless is a kind thing to do during the holidays. It will make a homeless person's day to have a hot meal during the frigid winter months, especially when you serve them with a big smile.

17. Send gifts to the troops: Send some holiday cheer to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan this season. Whether you put together a care package filled with holiday goodies or ship a small Christmas tree, your generous gift will make their holidays a little bit brighter.

18. Cover someone's holiday shift: Working during the holidays is a drag and it keeps people from spending quality time with their loved ones. This holiday season, why not cover the shift of a coworker who needs to see his or her family? Your time is just as precious as the next person's, but it's certainly a sacrifice that won't be forgotten.

19. Invite a loner to your house: Too often people celebrate the holidays alone. This year, why not invite a coworker or neighbor who has no one to celebrate with to your home for the holidays? Your selfless invitation will mean the world to that person.

20. Visit a nursing home: Nursing homes can be sad places during the holidays. Some residents never have visitors and often spend the holidays alone. You can make these senior citizens feel loved by visiting them during the holidays, sending them cards or gifts, and simply calling them on the phone.

This article originally appeared on the Best Colleges Online website and is reprinted here with permission.

20 selfless things to do this holiday season
Looking for a way to make a difference? You can visit a nursing home, cook a meal, write a thank-you note ...