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How Can I Help? Where to Start When There is So Much to Do

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

Today I'm celebrating 16 years since I started my first 'real job' after college -- as an administrative assistant at the American Red Cross. For me, it was a dream job. During a brief internship while I was studying for a semester in DC, I was struck by how caring, creative and persistent the team was. I knew I wanted to be part of it.

In a lot of ways, it's not a surprise to me that I'm still doing this work -- because I still find it true today. Even as the last few weeks especially have been filled with hard and heavy news that make it easy to feel hopeless and powerless, I still feel recharged spending time with my colleagues. While it's my job to talk to organizations about how they can help in a professional capacity, I've been touched to recently have had a number of friends reach out -- earnestly asking what they can do as they see all the hurt on the news.

As someone who has worked in partnerships and fundraising my whole career, more than ever, I can confidently say that unrestricted financial support is the best way to help organizations right now. Unrestricted support will allow them to use support where it is needed most, which often will be used to help the responses you aren't even seeing in the news.

Honestly though, in years of sharing that advice-- no one is ever satisfied with that answer alone! Maybe it's because most of us have more time and talent available to share than money. More likely, I think it's because it feels more fulfilling when we get to see the impact. So, if you want to do more than give money, here's my advice on where to start:

  • Start with a Personal Inventory - The answer for how you can best help, in my opinion, is personal. In my experience people love to give what they have in abundance. And that is different for every person. Invest some time-- 30 minutes to an hour-- and reflect on your unique gifts. Don't just think in terms of conventional volunteer roles. Consider your whole self. Some questions you can ask yourself to get started could be: What special skills do I have? What can I spend hours doing without getting bored? What do friends and colleagues admire about me? What do I love to share with others? To use an example for myself -- I love introducing and connecting people. When I need to do it for work, it's always a task I gravitate to and I often look for reasons to do it in my personal life. On the other hand, the idea of cooking for a group of people would be very stressful for me. While it might not seem so on the surface, both of these are skills and can be incredibly helpful as an individual in the world making change on your own and/or through an organization. Doing this kind of reflection can be very insightful and help you get clear on your best way to help -- whether you are doing a single task on your own or committing to an ongoing volunteer role with an organization. A fun side note: Not even five minutes after I originally published this post - I saw how my friend Kaitlin perfectly exemplified this lending her amazing knitting talents to an organization she cares about.

  • Consider that the greatest impact you can make is local - I started my career working with a national scope and now work with an international scope. I believe the work I do is important; I also know that success is most dependent on the local capacity. Who's best positioned to help? People that are trusted-- that are connected to others in the community, speak the local language and understand the local customs. The organizations I admire nurture and build local capacity. It's easy to focus on hurt and harm that is far away, but I promise you you won't have to look very hard to find ways to grow connections and capacity where you live. And, working locally is incredibly efficient and effective. If you want to help outside of your community, I suggest finding ways you can bolster that local community's capacity rather than looking to go there on your own.

  • Start now - You don't need to make a master plan to change the world. Change happens when lots of small positive things happen at scale. While often uncoordinated at the start, more coordination will follow once you have momentum. Do one good thing today. Repeat. See where it goes before you add structure.

  • Be patient - Ground yourself in the fact that especially when you're giving time and talent, finding the right fit and going through the process (e.g., background checks, training classes, etc) might mean it takes days or weeks from when you had an interest to help to when you can actually get involved. Sometimes this makes people frustrated or worse, they give up. I often think about this Chinese proverb: The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now. Progress takes time and it's hard to make any if you get frustrated by processes.

  • Be Empathetic - Reflect back on any time in your life that you needed help and who helped you. What did they do? How did they make you feel? In my experience at least, the most powerful helpers have reminded me of my strength and agency. They cared and they checked in. And that meant so much in times I needed it. Small things can be big things. When you help, give in this spirit.

  • Give Joyfully - Only give what you want to give. Don't start giving because you expect to get something back-- this is a sure way to lose your motivation. Your personal inventory can help you a lot here by clarifying and reminding you what you really want to share.

  • Be Intense about Issues, Be Kind with People - If your goal is to influence or change hearts and minds, remember that kindness is the best way.

  • Don't Underestimate the Power of Connecting With Others & Changing Yourself - How do a lot of the organizations and volunteers I've worked with over the years want to make impact? Often, the suggestion is a supply drive or an an on-site kit build. When it is exactly what is needed, these activities can be lovely and helpful -- but in my experience, organizations get many more offers for this kind of help that we could ever meaningfully use and these kinds of activities do also pose challenges of their own (e.g., expiration dates, storage, shipping, just to name a few!). Our culture places a high value on these kinds of contributions for some reason. And with a focus on that, we undervalue many of the simple things that are not so easy to measure -- but in my view are much more powerful to make the world better: listening, learning, reflecting, being kind and building relationships. If we can all intentionally find time to add more of that each day -- I believe we can change the world a lot faster.

So, if you're feeling stuck with all the good work that needs to get done - I hope this is a helpful for you in actually getting started. I'd love to hear how it is going and to hear what other advice you have! I should also note, a former colleague and friend Diane Lebson has written an awesome book For A Good Cause: A Practical Guide to Giving Joyfully on this very topic!


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