Alright, now that you've decided that you're going to give back to the community, it's time to get down to work. There are millions of ways to help a cause (or causes). The ways to help break down into two categories: volunteering and fundraising. Your personality, time constraints and willingness to get off your tookus will guide you to the method of giving back that works best for you. For some people, volunteering sounds like way too much work, for others, asking people for money would be pure torture. Get ready to choose your poison so you can make a huge difference in this world.
Volunteering is pretty easy. All you need to do is google your cause and they probably have a section of their website that says something like "get involved". Let's use our skatepark example again. If you google "Ann Arbor skatepark," you'll get about 13,000 results, with the first one being the home page of the cause. Click the link, find how to help, and away you go. Almost every charity has events at some time of the year, and they're usually in need of volunteers to help put those events on. They're always asking for help, and if you contact them and tell 'em you want to volunteer, they'll be super-excited and sign you right up.
Some charities will need you to get some training to be able to volunteer to the best of your abilities. But, since you have the time to volunteer, that shouldn't be a big problem. Since you care a ton about the cause you chose, volunteering should be easy and fun. It will probably be so rewarding that you'll soon be searching for ways to move up in the organization to help with decision making related to its direction.
If you find that grassroots-level volunteering is to your taste and you have no plans to be president of the board, you may want to branch out and help other causes as well. In my work with the Ann Arbor Skatepark, I've connected with many other organizations, from the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to the Family Learning Institute. Like I alluded to in a previous post, there's no Most Important charity. There's only the charities that are most important to you. If you're like me, you'll find that there are many causes that are important, and worthy of your time and energy. Volunteering for more than one could multiply the positive change you're out to make.
Every charity loves to have an army of volunteers available to help out. Every charity also has an even more important need… MONEY. If you don't have a lot of time to volunteer every week, raising money for your favorite charities can help an org stay afloat, and keep doing the good work that they have set out to do. Asking people for money to their face can be uncomfortable, but there are other more passive ways to make fundraising fun and entertaining without having to call your aunt and ask her for $50 for your cause (but that works too).
Raising large amounts of money, say 5 figures and up, requires having some sort of training in how to do such a thing. I can walk up to you cold and ask you to buy $10 worth of raffle tickets to help the Skatepark, but if I'm going to ask you for $10,000 there needs to be a little more finesse involved. I'm going to assume that your goal will be to raise less than $1,000 for your cause.
The old-school ways of raising some money for charity include charity walks, selling candy or magazines, running races, car washes and the like. When I was in middle school, holiday candle sales were all the rage. All of these methods still exist, and can raise good money. However, raising money on the internet can be more fun, and allow you to reach people all over the globe.
Pretty much every online fundraiser is going to cost some money. Businesses charge a percentage to give you access to millions of possible donors around the world. The charges vary, so you'll have to read the fine print on their sites. If you don't want a percentage of the money you raise to go to a for-profit business, you'll probably want to ask people personally for a gift, then have them write a check to the charity in question. However, in some cases, there will still be a fee taken out. For instance, The Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark's design/build fund is administered by the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation (AAACF). The AAACF offers the Skatepark services that they are expert at, including (but not limited to) donor acknowledgement, financial reports, and community-wide recognition. Using an online service can save you a lot of time and trouble, and is more fun than bugging your friends for donations at the next house party.
Of the many online fundraising sites, my favorite is Crowdrise. The Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark got involved with Crowdrise from the time they launched, and we still use it to bring in amounts of $20 to $1,000 super-fast. Crowdrise is similar to Facebook, but everyone's on there to help raise money for their favorite causes. Sometimes it can be overwhelming what with all the people asking everyone else for money, but your donors need not be on Crowdrise to give you your cause. All you have to do is go on the site, pick a charity, describe your fundraiser, upload some pics and a video, and share it with your friends and family. The money will start rolling in, and you'll feel great. Oh, and you can win fantastic prizes on the site, too. It's really revolutionized the way everyday people can make a huge difference in the world.
Social media sites like Crowdrise bring lots of people together to focus on one idea. Another way to get lots of people interested in your cause is through politics. Yes, that word sounds creepy and dirty, but politics is the way everything gets done in this world.
A simple letter to a city council member could mean that a well respected member of your community will be sharing your message to other high profile people. Showing up to city and/or county meetings to speak at public commentary can get you access to loads of politicians, and will probably get you in the local news as well. Once you establish yourself as someone who wants to do good in the community and can get things done, you'll get local politicians asking you for ways that they can help. Remember, you're not alone in your cause. There are many people in the community who are working for the same cause. Our elected officials know that they're there to do work for the people. The squeaky wheels get the grease, so get to squeaking! Once you start speaking up at political meetings and events, people will start to think you're more important than you really are, and that's when things will really start to happen! Trust me, I know!
One more way to help a cause is to help get corporate donations of some sort. All the biggies have money to give, and give millions every year. It's just a matter of figuring out who to talk to and how to ask for a donation. Chase Bank and Pepsi have even offered online contests for huge amounts of money. Charities set up a page on the corporate site, people vote, and the winners get grants. Pepsi Refresh does monthly contests, and people around the world can vote on each project. Getting people to vote every day can be a daunting cause, and may annoy people, but the results could be great.
Corporate sponsorship can be a tricky thing, especially with the above mentioned contests. Some people believe that it's selling out to get involved with big business. It may be a hard decision pitting your cause against your personal values. I look at it as a way to get corporations to do their civic duty by helping important causes that need it. For you it may not be as simple.
So there you have it. Many ways to help out, and some of them really easy! Now it's time for you to get out there (or on a different website) and start helping your cause. They, your community, and the world are waiting for you!
Maybe you don't care about saving the whales. Maybe cancer research just bums you out. Maybe a public skatepark seems frivolous to you. That's cool, but there is something inside you that you really care about. Something that makes you say to yourself almost every day, "Someone should do something about that." Well, that someone is you. Whether it's raising money for the local high school football team, beautifying a neighborhood park, or helping homeless people get back on their feet, the thing that makes a cause important is that YOU care about it. You can be the one to make a real difference in the world.
All this talk of making the world a better place is fine and dandy, but I know that more than a few who are reading this don't think that they should give back. It's hard enough to stay afloat in one's own life, let alone help others. There's a big debate over whether or not pro athletes, celebrities, successful business people, and rich people in general should give back. I don't understand why people focus on just these high-profile examples. We should expect everyone to "give back." In the history of the world, no one has been capable of coming up from birth to old age without help from someone else. We owe it to the world to help the rest keep coming up, too. This is all about many hands making light work. If we all work together to help each other out, the world will be a better place. That "each other" part can mean your neighbor, a stranger 'cross town, or someone halfway around the world. The fact is, if we weren't meant to live together and help each other survive, there would have only been one of us in the first place. We need each other.
Maybe you don't buy the bleeding heart reason to give back. Fine, be selfish. Do it for yourself. If you want it, you can get lots of recognition for being such an awesome person who cares so much about your community, cats in shelters, clean water, or whatever the cause. You can get your picture in the paper, get noticed on the street, and have people all over know who's being talked about when your name is mentioned. People will say, "Hey, there's the clean water lady!" and you can puff up your chest and feel good about yourself.
Alternatively, you can help out behind the scenes. Enough to make a difference, but without fanfare and spectacle. You'll know you're doing good, and it'll make you feel good. Doing something for little or no gain that helps someone else really does feel good. There's nothing wrong with giving because it feels good. Try it. You'll like it.
Ok, if you're still reading, that means you may want to know some great ways to make a difference for the cause of your choice. Some methods are easy, some take a whole lot of effort. Some are fun and satisfying, some will make you feel a little icky once you've done them (read: politics). But, in the world of "giving back," there's something for everyone. My next post will be all about specific ways you can help whatever cause you want. You know you've been dying to find a way to secure funding for that northern Michigan whale sanctuary. Now's your chance.
A while back, NPR did a series called This I Believe. Whenever I heard it, I said to myself, "I believe I'll change the station."
It's not that I disagreed with the premise that it's important to have things to believe in. It's just that many of the pieces were written in the format of, "I believe this, I believe that, I also believe etc…" Plus the title, This I Believe, just sounds pretentious and, well, NPRish. Why not just call the series, "I Believe"? At least then it sounds like English from a recent century. It's similar to when someone wears a shirt with an American flag waving on it that says, "We The People…" Yes, you sound fancy when you say it that way, but really, it's the year 2010. Old English is so 1110.
Having said that, I do think it's important to have something to believe in, something to have faith in. Not only should everyone have faith, but they should act on it to make the world a better place.
Some people were instilled with faith from childhood. Me, not so much. My hippie parents taught us that everyone's beliefs are ok, and that people believe many different things. This was great in the sense that it allowed me to meet lots of different people and find things I have in common with them, rather than avoiding people who are different from me. But, it also made it hard for me to figure out what is right, and what to have faith in. I'm not just talking about religion here. Although, I'm often jealous of those folks who have a deep, definite, certain faith in their religion. Seems they can easily summon up hope in the worst of times. I'm simply talking about something bigger than one's self. Something that matters more than self, or even family. Something that's important to a larger community. Our neighborhood, city, region, the world… whatever.
In the past few months I've had conversations with several people I know who say they are missing something. Of course, they're around my age (43), so this may be typical in the human lifespan. These folks aren't religious, but that's not the problem. They've worked and worked to make sure that they and their families are safe, fed, housed, and have some money in the bank. Problem is, they've gotten to the point of thinking of the day-to-day as not enough. I worked in restaurants for a dozen years after high school, and after a while got that same feeling. The importance of my job wasn't obvious. I haven't had those empty feelings since I became a teacher 11 years ago. When you're a teacher, your day-to-day work impacts the future in a more obvious way. With many jobs, it's not so easy to figure out how a real difference is being made in the world. I suggested my friends become volunteers of some kind.
The problem with volunteering is that it seems like a chore unless you really believe what you're doing is important or good. Many people know that doing good is right, and that they should volunteer in some way. Unfortunately, we tend to look to others and say, "Hey, that seems like a good cause. I'll volunteer there." But if you don't truly believe in the cause you're working for, it's going to feel like a burden, rather than something that's making the world a better place. How many TV shows have there been over the years where a character gets looked down upon because they only volunteer at the soup kitchen once a year: during the holidays. That's a cheesy example, but many people only think about volunteering, giving to food drives, donating cash or giving in other ways from Thanksgiving on through to New Year's. To really make a difference, to do real Good, we have to make it a habit year-'round, enjoy it, and care.
Tomorrow: Yes, You Do Have a Care in the World