My Goodness' New Year's resolutions.

Advice on how to make the world better.
Jan. 13 2010 11:00 AM

Feeling Resolute

Sandy shares her vows to do better in the new year.

Did you make a resolution to give this year?
Did you make a resolution to give this year?

Usually I take the lead from you, the readers, on what questions to answer. But this week I've decided to deviate a bit. It's a new year and almost my one-year anniversary writing My Goodness, so instead of answering your questions, I'm going to answer my own: What do I want to know about goodness?

The dawn of a new decade, along with changes in my own life, got me thinking about how I can do a better job living out "my goodness" this year. I started writing this column because of my conviction that there was more and more to be done, yet I found myself with less time and less money to help. Unfortunately, that hasn't changed.

In September, I moved cross-country, started a new job, and joined two nonprofit boards. The upheaval meant I let a lot of things slide that I used to be "good" about, and now's the time to get better. I generally despise New Year's resolutions (perhaps because I am awful at keeping them). But this year, I decided to  at least try to walk the walk.

There are a lot of things I could do to try to make the world a better place. I could remember to bring my reusable grocery bag with me every time I go to the store; I could interact more often with the man who sells Street Sense on my walk to buy a cup of coffee; I could pay attention to where my food comes from and buy more locally. While I'll try harder on all of these (really, I will!), I want to make resolutions that will have the biggest impact. So this year I decided to make just three—one for each thing I have to give: money, time, and voice. Here they are:

1. Find a local organization I care about and commit to volunteer regularly.

I volunteered one morning a month in San Francisco but haven't volunteered since I moved to Washington, D.C. I want to start again. Not only does lending a hand help people and organizations in need; it also helps me feel a part of my surroundings. I learn things about my neighbors and the needs in my community that I wouldn't know otherwise.

Of course there are places to volunteer no matter where you live: food pantries, schools, hospitals, animal shelters. The list is endless. But don't just choose whatever is closest to you. Think about what skills you have to share, what kind of time commitment you can make, and what issue is closest to your heart.

Go to Volunteer Match or Idealist to find opportunities in your area. Or join the newly launched Idealist Network to be part of a broader movement and find other people in your community who are looking to get engaged just like you.

2. Be a better-informed local citizen!

While my new city is the hub of national politics, I still know next to nothing about the local politics. This year, Washington, D.C., has a mayoral race as well as several other key elections, and, I'm extremely embarrassed to admit, I haven't even switched my voter registration yet. Not to mention the fact that while I know who the current mayor is, I barely know anything about what issues are most important to the city. I need to start reading the local news, following the political wind-up, and learning about my new home.

Don't know whether or not you're registered to vote? Don't know how to change your registration? Check this site for information nationwide. Some states have registration deadlines as early as Feb. 1 for their primaries, so don't wait until the week before the election to check.

3. Take an hour and update my giving plan.

While my excuse for slacking on the first two resolutions is my move to a new city, this is a resolution that everyone should make every year—regardless of where you find yourself.

We all feel bad when we have to say no to a good organization that wants a donation. But, as I've said before, you feel a lot better saying "no" when you know you'll say "yes" to another worthy cause. So make a giving plan, and stick to it.

Start by deciding how much you can really give. Use Charity Navigator's tax savings calculator to gauge whether you can spare a bit more. Then make a list of issues you care about, and research who is doing the best job addressing those issues. Decide which organizations you want to donate to, and in what amounts. I always choose to give a larger amount to just a few organizations rather than small amounts to many. That way, there is less transaction cost for the organization, and I can follow the group's work to ensure my donation is leading to real change.

Making "goodness" resolutions may seem cheesy, but taking a few minutes to think about the largest impact you can make is definitely worthwhile. Feel free to borrow mine, or come up with your own and share them with me at ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

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

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