Maybe you'd love to send Doctors Without Borders a hefty check to help out Syrian refugees, or pledge a few hundred million to cure an disease, but you have enough trouble making your student loan payment every month. Luckily, there are still plenty of free ways to do good in the world. Strapped for time? You probably have some unwanted or underused items around the house that someone else could make better use of. Have some extra hours to fill? There are many organizations that would be happy to have your mental or physical labor donated to them. Why not target a place that you're already a fan of?
If you have special talents or interests, it’s always best to start there. Are you a graphic designer or have great web skills? Offer to rework the website of your local non-profit. Are you a social media genius? Drum up some enthusiasm for a campaign you support. If you have a lot of time, it probably also means you’re underemployed, and volunteering can be a great thing for your portfolio and/or your resume. If you're not sure where to start, or don’t have a specific goal in mind beyond being a decent person, here are a few suggestions to start you off.
1. Walk Dogs At A Dog Shelter
It is a rare dog shelter that has enough staff members to take the dogs outside for a walk. In the animal shelter I worked at in Boston, I once witnessed a golden retriever refuse to pee for over two days because he was so reluctant to soil his cage and go against his training. Not only is it cruel to keep dogs (and other animals) locked up for weeks and months, it can affect their behavior, ultimately making them less adoptable. How much of a sacrifice is it to go for a stroll with an adorable pup, anyway? It’s like they’re doing you a favor. Contact your local shelter or use the Walkzee app.
2. Lend Your Computing Power To The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI)
Is there intelligent life on other planets? How will we ever know if everyone doesn’t pitch in to process available radio telescope data with SETI@home? It literally doesn't take any work on your part — and you'll be helping science, simply by running a computer program. Maybe you personally don’t have time to volunteer, but, let’s face it, your computer’s got some down time.
If that’s not your thing, there are other opportunities for your computer using the same BOINC technology. Keep in mind that this will certainly affect your electricity bill, so keep an eye on it before you commit to this long term. Don’t forget to turn off your monitors!
3. Become A Clinic Escort For Women Seeking Reproductive Health Services
You may have watched recently in abject horror as Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards was grilled by members of Congress about everything from the organization’s handling of fetal tissue to her salary. The House has since voted to form a committee to investigate the non-profit even further. Instead of simply despairing about this onslaught by the GOP, consider becoming a clinic escort.
Clinics that provide abortions in addition to other health services are frequently picketed by anti-choice groups, which can be extremely intimidating for patients. You can help create a safe space for these women and act as a buffer against protesters. Keep in mind this requires a calm demeanor, a willingness to stand around for hours under boring circumstances, and, according to a friend of mine who performs this service in the South, the possibility of protesters tracking you down and harassing you outside of the clinic setting. But this is also one of the most directly empowering things you can do for another woman — and that's pretty damn rewarding.
If you are near a Planned Parenthood in Minnesota, North Dakota, or South Dakota, you can use this email to get more information on how to become a clinic escort. If you are in Louisville, Kentucky, you can contact Everysaturdaymorning to get involved. Otherwise, call your local clinic to find out about similar groups in your community.
4. Donate Old Towels & Blankets
Can't commit to a dog walking schedule but still want to throw our furry friends a bone? Round up some old towels and blankets so their cages are more comfortable. (Most shelters don’t specifically advertise this need, but I’ve never had a shelter refuse my donations.) The great thing is, the dogs don’t care at all if the blankets and towels are ratty or stained, so it’s a great way to keep otherwise unwanted material out of the landfill as well.
If you have blankets in new or near new condition, consider donating them to a battered women's shelter. Their clients have often fled their homes suddenly, with little besides the clothes on their backs, and could really use them.
5. Transcribe Documents For The Smithsonian
I’m sure that in a few decades robots will be able to do this for us. For now, though, we have at least one advantage over them, and it’s a surprising one — our ability to read cursive! The Smithsonian has gargantuan collections of handwritten documents and diaries and they’ve put out a call for any volunteers willing to translate cursive into typed-in text. Some already translated documents include a letter from Georgia O’Keeffe and the diary of a woman named Mary Henry who wrote entries during and after the Civil War in Washington D.C. Still available: labels on specimens of bumblebees, ledgers from a 19th century clock company, and Bladensburg Union Burial Association Records from the '20s and '30s.
Hey, at the very least, you'll have a very interesting anecdote at the next party you go to.
6. Give Water & Socks To Homeless People
I used to work with homeless youth, and while their big picture problems could be quite daunting, handing them water bottles and clean socks immediately solved a few of their lesser issues. If you’re often approached by homeless people at stoplights in urban areas, I recommend storing water bottles and socks in your car.
7. Eat Less Meat
I’ve been a vegetarian for many years, mostly because of how horrendous I think the meat industry is for both animals and people. However, going cold turkey (if you’ll pardon the pun) isn’t the answer for everyone. If you reduce your meat eating by half, replacing the meat with vegetables and legumes (not with, say, Cheetos and Milk Duds), it can still make an environmental impact, probably save you some money, and lengthen your life to boot.
8. Donate Gently Used Or New Suitcases to Foster Kids
It is incredibly common for foster kids to tote their belongings from foster home to foster home in garbage bags. This is so viscerally upsetting that multiple organizations have sprung up to collect suitcases for these kids, including Suitcases for Kids, founded by then 10-year-old Aubry Burnside in 1995, and It’s My Bag, which has multiple drop-off locations. Since these are typically used for local travel only, they do not have to meet the standards required for airline travel, so it’s a great option for any such bags you have lying around which are otherwise suitable.
9. Grow Food For Pantries
Do you feel like your green thumb is going to waste? Why not contact your local food pantry and see if there are certain types of vegetables or fruit on their wish lists? They often receive a lot of dried food and cans and very little produce. If you have lots of fruit trees with far more fruit you can ever use, especially in California, there are a few organizations who, with a little notice, will harvest your extra bounty and pass it on.
Are you maxed out on the amount of scarves you can give out to friends and family but still enjoy the clickety-clack of knitting needles? There are a number of organizations that seek preemie outfits and handmade blankets for disadvantaged kids. Did you try knitting and it didn’t stick? Many of them will also accept your unwanted yarn and knitting supplies as well.
And remember: If none of these strike you, don't give up. I guarantee you, your goodwill will be appreciated somewhere.
Images: Giphy (10); audreyjm529/Flickr