Does volunteer work have more impact if you do it on the East Coast?

Advice on how to make the world better.
Aug. 26 2009 9:28 AM

Meet Me in St. Louis

Does volunteer work have more impact if you do it on the East Coast?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com, and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Sandy,

I stopped volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House three years ago. My resignation coincided with the birth of my daughter. Since then, I've become family-centric. Now my "goodness" is minimized to my personal purchasing behavior (clothing my family in TOMS shoes, etc.), but I don't feel like I'm doing enough. I want to find a way to effectively contribute to the good of the globe, not just the good of the family.

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Beyond my time constraints, I also feel constrained by my location on the map. I don't feel like I'm able to make a real, solid impact on society from my spot in the Midwest. Unless I'm on one of the coasts, I feel my impact is minimal at best.

How can I do good without limiting my contributions at home? And without moving?

—Jack, St. Louis

Sandy:

Where can you do the most good? Wherever you are.
Where can you do the most good? Wherever you are.

Everyone is limited by something. Or, more likely, by many things. Not enough money, not enough time, a crying 3-year-old. But geography shouldn't matter when it comes to doing good. Sure, it may be harder to have an impact on needy children in Africa from your Missouri living room, but that doesn't mean you're any less equipped to help others.

You may also be too hard on yourself. When you're doing your "goodness" calculation, you can't discount the many things you do in your everyday life beyond your TOMS purchases. Your biggest job—raising happy, healthy, caring children—may in fact be one of the very best things you can do for the greater good. But I realize that you are itching for a way to feel connected to needs outside your family.

One reader wrote that when she thinks about where to spend her time and money, she follows the mantra: "Act local, give global." Her donations go to those abroad while her time and voice stay at home. I like that philosophy. Follow the words of our wise reader and take a look around you. I have no doubt there are plenty of needs to be met in St. Louis.

If you're looking for a way to keep spending time with your family while doing good, find an opportunity for "goodness" where you can take them along. Volunteering as a family not only allows you to stay together, it also gives you a unique shared experience and helps to teach your children the value of helping others. But be picky when looking for family volunteering opportunities (for the good of your kids and the nonprofit). Sites such as Volunteer Match and Idealist let you find activities that are appropriate for kids. When I searched, Volunteer Match had 50 listed within 20 miles of St. Louis, from sorting donations at a food pantry to visiting a nursing home.

If your daughter isn't ready to volunteer, look for an activity that you can do without cutting into your family time. You may already know that I am an avid supporter of virtual volunteering—what could be better than saving the world in your pajamas? Mozilla is partnering with Idealist and betterplace for the first-ever Mozilla Service Week on Sept. 14-21. They are inviting tech-savvy folks to volunteer their services to improve their communities. While some projects will need to be done in person (installing a computer in a school or teaching senior citizens to use the Web), some can be done online (translating Web site content or helping a nonprofit set up a Facebook page).

If you're hungry for hands-on volunteer work, go back to the Ronald McDonald House. If a more global focus is important to you, join the St. Louis U.N. World Food Program Committee. The Washington University Community Service Office has a good list of nonprofit agencies in your region, and the St. Louis United Way hosts BoardLinkStL, a site to help connect strong individuals to serve on the boards of local nonprofits. Whether you can give an hour a month or a day a week, you should be able to find a way to feel like your contribution is anything but minimal.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

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