The words alms and donation have different connotations in our lives.
While driving we come across street urchins at the traffic lights. They look miserable, they knock on the windowpane and ask for help. We sometimes hand over some money, to help them marginally, we call that as alms. Sometimes we act out of kindness and on other times to get over the feeling of guilt. The guilt, because they are part of our society and our economy has not alleviated them out of the abject poverty – they don’t have food, shelter, or clothing, leave aside the loftier goals such as education and jobs.
Donation is financial help for a goal. The first example of donation which comes to my mind is ‘Scholarship.’ The second example would be like the financial help provided to the marginal farmers, when their crop fails due to floods or draught.
Both alms and donation are charities, but the first is normally looked down upon, because the giver is not doing anything to change the lives of the needy. He in a way is making the needy a destitute, who in most cases be ever after dependent on alms. The second charity is meant to provide succour through education, medical treatment, employment, soft loans, rehabilitation etc.
Sometimes the cases overlap, the alms can provide a crucial help to a noble soul; or the lot of the receiver may remain the same, he may become dependent on donations.
A Buddha bhikshuk would spend all his time in meditation, teaching and helping others. He would go to a house and knock at the door for alms(bhiksha). If the owner gives him something, then he would eat that day, otherwise he would go hungry, he wouldn’t knock on another door. There are cases when alms have helped people to change their lives, specially at times like a catastrophe, war, or partition.
In a few cases the receivers of donations have become complacent, they have stopped to try their best. Probably they would have done better if they had not received the donations.
Personally I feel both alms as well as donations should be given.