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Another Kind of Gift Guide

December 5, 2009

This time of year, it’s perfectly reasonable to get caught up in wanting to celebrating your lovely friends, family and selves, but- this year, more than ever- try not to forget the gift of giving to those you don’t know and will likely never meet. Use the holiday spirit as inspiration for volunteering, which tends to be an endeavor that falls prey to excuses too easily through the rest of the year. But, while regular gift-giving to people you know can certainly present a number of challenges, the concept of community service is likely to leave people feeling a bit lost. So I’m going to attempt to help you to sort through some of the most common problems.

1. Narrow your work down to a niche.

Scenario: You’re determined to volunteer this season and when you sit down to try and decide where to help you get bogged down with, frankly, how shitty the world can be. There are hundreds of causes out there to help with and when you start to think about it, you start to feel a bit helpless. How can you possibly decide what the single most important issue to you is? Who do you listen to? Defeated, you give up, thinking that you hour or $50 won’t do shit, in the scheme of things.

Solution: It’s true, you’re not going to single-handedly save the world. But the cliche of every little bit counts is a cliche for a reason. Your heart may be pulled in a million ways but it’s important to decide on one direction to devote yourself to in order to avoid giving up. Ignore what everyone else is saying- celebrities, commercials, those people on the street, your friends, your families, everyone- because this is a personal decision and should not be influenced by any outside sources. Brainstorm a list of the issues you find most important and then follow your gut to the cause you’re most passionate about. Remember, no matter what you pick there are going to be other things you’d ideally also like to help with and there will be people telling you that there are more important causes out there. Shut those thoughts up. What’s most important here is your passion, because it will drive you to contribute to the best of your ability.

2. Choose what you can donate: your time or money.

Scenario: You’ve picked your cause, and now you need to decide how you’re going to help. Basically, all community service boils down to two options: throwing money at the problem or volunteering your time, which can manifest itself in a number of ways.

Solution: Neither of these options is better than the other; it’s all about what works best for you. Are you pulled in a million different directions with a ton of commitments already and the thought of squeezing one more thing into your schedule makes you want to scream? Then maybe it’s best just to write a check. Have you been hit by the recession and can barely cover your list of gifts for your family, let alone think about giving anything else up right now? Then try and find some time to donate. Once you’ve decided which route to go on, then you need to either:

a. Decide on a budget: Asses your situation honestly. Remember, it’s noble of you to donate anything and that these                                     organizations are running on pretty much nothing, so any amount of money is going to be greatly appreciated. Twenty                                     dollars is a good bottom line and then from there, of course, the sky’s the limit. Another option is to donate goods, like food                          or supplies, which gives you a range of options and guarantees your donation won’t be pocketed by someone higher up the                            line than the people you’re actually trying to help.

b. Decide on your expertise: Sometimes charities are only looking for specific types of volunteers, usually to do grunt                                  work, but usually they’re open to suggestion. Community service doesn’t just have to be licking envelopes or doling out                                    soup on a food line. It depends on whether you can volunteer for an hour or make a commitment for a couple of months, of                            course, but get creative.  Think about your job or major and how that could apply to the cause you’ve selected.  Could you                              help come up with a new marketing plan? Sponsor and/or organize an event? Teach people and raise awareness of the                                       issue? Write grant proposals? Figure out ways to stretch their limited budget? All you have to do is recognize what you’re                               good at and find out how to apply it to helping your cause.

3. Think Globally, Act Locally

Scenario: It’s easiest to pick one of the big name organizations or to find some company online that’s promising to save some poor African country and cut a check. While this is a perfectly fine decision, there is a bit of risk involved. Unfortunately, people can be crappy, and occasionally organizations posing as charities are really just money-making schemes. Or, on a less despicable scale, faraway charities may not be using your money exactly as you’d like and, in the end, you really have little say. You put all this effort into volunteering, so why not make sure it yields what you consider the best results?

Solution: Pick something local, preferably with a brick-and-mortar headquarters filled with people you could actually meet. You can either find a place that’s helping to solve your cause on a local scale, or someplace local that’s working around the world. This way you can feel things out and it’s much more likely you’ll have control over how your money is spent. Also, if you do work on something with a smaller scale you can actually be able to see the results, and there’s nothing that’s a more positive reinforcement than that. Then, on a sneakier level, once you’ve established face-to-face relationships with the people you’ve offered to help, it’s a lot more difficult to back out of your promises and is likelier to build bigger and bigger goals.

4. Allow a Ripple Effect

Scenario: You’ve mailed your check or spent your hour at the soup kitchen, so now you pat yourself on the back for being such a good person and move on with your life until next year, right? Wrong.

Solution: You don’t have to keep the same commitment throughout the entire year if you’re unable to. Just always keep in mind how good it felt to help and focus on the little things you can interject in your daily life to help out your cause.

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