Regular people looking to help a cause should pick one and become an amateur specialist and supporter.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I've heard many people in the States say they want to 'make a difference,' but they're not sure if they're ready for something as extreme as a two-year commitment. What they mean is: “I want to make a difference, without living on $380 per month and fighting off tarantulas with a machete every night.” Fair enough. It is possible to do something more than just donate money and something less than commit your professional life to charity or development work in a poor organization in a poor country. Here are 5 ways to make a difference, without quitting your day job.
1. Pick a Problem. Forgive this fairly obvious statement but there are a lot of problems out there. Make a list and think a little bit about each one and listen to your gut. If 'world hunger' riles you more than 'child slavery,' then go with hunger – you need to be passionate about your cause.
2. Know the scope of the problem. I was recently approached by Americans looking to donate food to my poor, indigenous community. They said, “We want to help. The people are poor and starving and we're going to donate X pounds of food.” Trouble is, I live among farmers in a reciprocal society – no one near where I live is starving. They are extremely poor and arguably need many things, but not food. The Americans dedicated themselves to a solution to a problem that didn't exist. This is obviously an anecdotal example but, in my experience working between charities and poor communities, it is commonplace. Research your problem and you will better understand appropriate solutions.
3. Know who is already working to solve it. You should be able to distinguish, through research, who is working effectively and who is the best in the field. For example, Amnesty International is unparalleled in its ability to free political prisoners. Women's Organization for Political Prisoners (WOFPP) works towards the same goal, but you've never heard of them because they're not as good at it as Amnesty. For big causes, like hunger, disadvantaged children, or potable water access, organizations will definitely exist. If your cause is more esoteric like, 'children of single mothers in Arizona who are addicted to methamphetamines,' there might not be an organization. If that's the case, you have a unique opportunity to pioneer a niche need.
4. Figure out what outside support is most needed. Money is not always the most effective or even the most appropriate form of support, although it's typically the first thing we think of donating. For example, if you want to support the Peace Corps, without actually joining it, you should write a letter to your congressman. The organization suffers from a lack of funding because of a lack of support in Congress. If you donate money to a volunteer project, you're definitely helping, but the biggest help, overall and in the long run, would be more support from Washington.
Similarly, while Habitat for Humanity is happy to accept your donations, they also need people to organize build teams and rally volunteers.
5. Keep with it. Be consistent in your efforts, research your cause regularly, and expect to feel overwhelmed at some point. Not necessarily by the difficulty of your own efforts but by the scope of the problem. If it was easily solvable, you wouldn't need to work on it.
In short, become an amateur specialist in your cause. The experts are those who dedicate their lives to it and the tourists are those who hear about it on the news and decide to donate. You will be somewhere in between.
If, ultimately, you want to do more, make it your profession. I promise that tarantulas are actually really easy to kill.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons