What goes around comes around: Why you should talk to family and friends about giving back
It’s the season of gratitude. And amid the “I’m thankful for…” toasts, toy drives, and Salvation Army kettles, you probably have a particular cause or charity you want to support. So, you tweet and post and email your friends and family, passionately explaining why your cause needs their attention—and their dollars—now.
The problem? Your message gets lost in a holiday tidal wave of social media marketing, email fundraising, and clipboard-wielding sidewalk canvassers shouting, “Hey! You with the cool glasses! I bet you’re down with [fill-in-the-blank] cause.”
How to encourage others to give when it seems like everyone is in need?
It’s an ugly truth: Compassion fatigue is a real thing. Our experience of the world is filtered through “breaking” news alerts and clickbait headlines using suffering as a come-on. Faced with this onslaught, our brains use strong cognitive biases to keep us going. How? As the issues—poverty, mass shootings, systemic racism, disease—pile up, we grow numb. We tell ourselves: “One person can’t make a difference.”
Fortunately, there is a secret weapon to help fight this feeling of helplessness: You.
Listen to that little voice in your head that wants to help, and know that you can actually cut through all of this and make a difference. Not with a Facebook post, but by bringing your conversations about giving money, time, and attention to causes offline, into the real world—in ways that make sense for the organizations you want to support. Here are three examples of how real people encouraged peers to do the most good they could.
Give back as a group
When Ellen, 29, got a new consulting gig that doubled her salary, she started taking stock. “After I paid off my student loans, one of my financial priorities became: How can I leverage my income to help people who don’t have access to the same resources?” said the otherwise jaded New Yorker. “I’d donated to big national and international charities in the past, but I wanted to do something with more of a local impact. Getting involved with a giving circle was a way to do both.”
Giving circles bring together groups of people who want to raise funds for a cause—from themselves and from their networks. They meet regularly to discuss fundraising strategies. Ellen’s giving circle benefited a cooperative economics coalition that made its own decisions about where the money went. Over the course of the year, giving circle members attended talks and presentations by workers at New York City co-ops—companies collectively owned by their workers.
“We talked to worker-owners at co-op catering companies owned by immigrants, community banks that emphasize nondiscriminatory, nonpredatory lending in low-income neighborhoods, and even a co-op bookkeeping collective,” Ellen said. “Ultimately, these were the kinds of projects that our money went to.”
For Ellen, one of the most gratifying parts of the experience was telling friends about it—and getting them to give back, too. She invited a coworker, Kendra, to an end-of-year party her giving circle threw. That event inspired Kendra to join the following year’s circle.
“I wanted to donate to local causes but didn’t know where to start,” Kendra said. “The giving circle was a way to get more involved in learning about local organizations, and also to see how my money would directly impact them.”
Ask how you can help the most
One of the well-known ironies in a soup kitchen is the overabundance of well-intentioned volunteers on Thanksgiving. It seems like the right thing to do—how could the impulse to feed the hungry on the most sentimentally significant day of the year for hunger not be? But the old saying “too many cooks in the kitchen” applies here. (And there are not enough cooks on Black Friday, when the same number of mouths need feeding and many of yesterday’s volunteers are off queuing for doorbuster deals.)
Instead of following the herd, pick up the phone and call community organizations to ask about the kind of help they need most this season. Terri, 30, reached out earlier this year to a local church in Philadelphia that runs a Thanksgiving meal for the homeless, asking about how she could be useful.
Their instructions? “‘Just make a little extra of whatever you’re cooking for yourself, and bring it over,’” Terri recalls being told. “So I just doubled up on apple pie and mac ’n’ cheese and brought the excess to the church.” That’s one less cook in a crowded kitchen, and extra food where it’s needed.
More often than not, though, soup kitchens prefer a cash donation. (With cash, food pantries can bulk-buy ingredients for 20 times more meals than they could make with in-kind goods.) But there are other, perhaps more productive ways to give back, such as volunteering legal assistance, job training, or administrative work. It starts with reaching out and making a connection.
Don’t be afraid to push the guilt button (gently)
When a friend of Steve’s married into a wealthy family, Steve noticed his pal having a hard time dealing with all of his newfound good fortune: a big house, trips abroad, etc. The friend had grown up solidly middle class, so he wasn’t accustomed to a world of abundant disposable income. And frankly, he confided in Steve, it made him a little uncomfortable.
Steve had long been involved with a homeless organization that was in the midst of a fundraising push. You see where this is going, right? Over a round of pre-holiday drinks, Steve brought up how he wished he could do more to help with this issue that he cared so much about. In the next breath, he asked his friend what charities he’d be giving to this year. The conversation moved on, but Steve could tell his question had hit home. Sure enough, a couple days later Steve got a text from his friend telling him he’d made a sizeable donation to the homeless charity. Mission accomplished.
In the end, it wasn’t the guilt that made Steve’s friend get involved. He was looking for a way to feel good about his new lot in life. He just needed to be pointed in the right direction. Win-win!