Want to contribute to non-profit groups? Here's how and why to dedicate your time or money
A social change expert explains how you can contribute to making the world a better place
Changing the world isn't a one-person job, but it needs to get done. In a recent article, we explained how to influence politicians to use their powers for good. But while the government may be the largest and most powerful actor for change that we can affect, its wheels turn slowly — and not always in the direction you want.
If the slow grind of fighting city hall isn't for you, there are many smaller organizations you can support that are committed to creating positive change in the world. Helping out a non-profit, NGO or social enterprise is a great way to do something about the social problems that concern you.
Chi Nguyen is something of a lifelong specialist in the field of social change. She's worked as a staffer on Parliament Hill and for charities like the United Way. Currently, she's the director of social innovation at Social Innovation Canada, a non-profit that runs shared workspaces for groups on a social mission.
In other words, Nguyen's seen people working for social change from all angles and knows from experience that groups of people — when determined and organized — can make real change happen. We asked her how to find and contribute to an organization that helps improve our society.
Finding an organization
The first step is finding an organization that you want to help. But instead of just picking the first charity that turns up at your door or accosts you on the street, it's worth researching who's doing work in the space that you're interested in. If you have a specific goal, like promoting literacy among lower-income Canadians, you'll probably find people working on exactly that.
Effectiveness is also a concern. Whether you're planning to volunteer or donate money, you want to know that an organization is successful when it comes to making a difference. Read its impact statement, but also poke around to see if any third party has done reviews of its work. Organizations such as GiveWell do extensive research into different charities and are there to help you make your philanthropic efforts go further.
Picking an organization to support depends on your end goal. As Nguyen points out, a lot of people are interested in getting involved not only to contribute to positive change, but also for individual growth and community building.
If this is you, look for an organization that will be a good match for you personally. Read how an organization talks about its work in its public materials. Reach out and speak to representative or get in touch with volunteers. You're not just trying to do good — you're looking for a community you want to be a part of.
Once you find an organization you want to support, you have to decide how you're going to support them. According to Nguyen, "sometimes you just have to cut a cheque." The people working in non-profits are often professionals with years of experience in their fields. They know what they need to do, but they don't always have the resources to do it. Depending on your own capabilities, and the organization's specific needs, cash contributions can often be more useful than coming in as an untrained volunteer.
When donating, you want to be sure that your money is being used efficiently. It can be useful to consult charity ratings sites, but Nguyen warns against being misled by metrics regarding the proportion of donations spent on overhead or administration costs.
Often, we're led to believe that the more an organization spends on staffing and equipping itself, the less it spends helping people. "The language of charities having to spend only 15 per cent on administration means that we are really not interested in investing in the people who are maintaining and building our society," says Nguyen. Putting money into staff and resources can make a non-profit more rather than less effective. Therefore, other metrics — GiveWell uses cost per life saved, for example — can be more useful.
In addition to being helpful, volunteering has been shown to make you happier, healthier, and provide a sense of meaning, so there are plenty of reasons to get involved.
It's helpful to think about where you can be most effective. Some organizations need people to turn up and serve meals, others can use you for park stewardship or sorting donations. Doing this is great, but many groups would also benefit from professional skills you might possess, such as management consulting or marketing. If you have specialized experience, it's worth trying to put it to use.
Nguyen points to organizations like Volunteer Toronto and Endeavour Consulting, which are both great at matching up skilled volunteers with organizations that can benefit from their expertise. The CivicAction Leadership Foundation is also committed to bringing together professionals, entrepreneurs, government representatives and non-profits to promote the civic good.
"Do the work"
One of the most natural responses to the problems in the world is to complain about them — to talk about issues with those around you, and even to debate what other people ought to do about them. This is important, but Nguyen thinks that it's a bad move to stop there.
Her one piece of advice for people who are serious about making society better? "Stop complaining, and do the work." This can mean educating yourself on the best means for change or researching how to raise consciousness. But you don't need to figure it all out for yourself. There are countless organizations already committed to positive social change. What's often missing is the manpower and financial resources to put solutions into effect, so go out there, find a non-profit that suits you and make a contribution.
Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.