Dear Patty and Sandy,
What are some good ways to help others when you are a working mother of very small children? It is easy enough to decide where to send our pittance of charity dollars every month. But it's harder to give of myself. Are there any good options for those useful hours between 4 a.m and 6 a.m?
Casey, your idea of using the wee hours of the morning is admirable, but I would also caution you to take care of yourself. You want your "Goodness" to last for the long haul!
Too many of us trot out the excuse, "I want to volunteer, but I can't get there because ..." Thanks to the Internet, phone, and virtual work of all kinds, that is no longer viable. "Virtual volunteering" is now a big part of the volunteer sector. My 84-year-old mom has a tough time getting around in the winter, but she volunteers from her living room as a phone screener for families seeking social services. She is not alone. There are "virtual jobs" of all kinds that can be done from your home and have real impact on issues you care about—from part-time Web designer, to fundraiser, to Wikipedia content screener, to homework tutor. If you want to go global, even the United Nations has a great resource for online volunteering.
Whether you are co-opting your playgroup to talk about the need for better local parks or becoming a virtual volunteer, start with an issue you care about and have energy for—and then decide what time commitment you can make. Be sure to aim low—better to underpromise and overdeliver than to disappoint an already-strapped nonprofit.
My mom is absolutely right that virtual volunteer opportunities abound and are increasing daily. Kids who grew up on the Internet are pushing NGOs to use the Web to their benefit and harness the goodwill of people exactly like you. If you can't find a virtual volunteering job right up your alley, contact an organization whose work you admire and offer your services. The organization might be willing to start a virtual volunteer program.
One thing that small service or advocacy organizations often have the hardest time with is their communications and outreach. They don't have the staff to do all the work it takes to stay in the public eye. This kind of communications work is something that can easily be done by volunteers working from home. Offer your services, stay current on their issues in the news, and let them know where you see opportunities for media coverage or community engagement. Blog, Twitter, or Facebook about them—anything to get them on the map and encourage like-minded individuals to donate their time or money.
If you want something more concrete and interactive, another idea is to participate in an online mentoring program. You can e-mentor students as close as the local junior high or as far away as Africa, which might be ideal, given your time constraints. A good program should have an application process, a background check, and a thorough training program. Just type "mentor" into Volunteer Match's virtual volunteering section, and you'll find tons of organizations looking for volunteers.
As the youngster of the team, I also want to point out the excellent and possibly unconsidered benefit of your efforts: the wonderful example volunteering sets for your children. Kids who grow up in households where their parents volunteer are more likely to do so themselves—and when they start working at the local food bank in the afternoons, you can shift your hours to join them and sleep in a bit!