At the beginning of every year, plenty of us make resolutions, set intentions, and do rituals to mark our goals for months ahead. We’re absolutely positive this is the year we’ll become the most evolved version of ourselves. We’ll donate a ton of money to charity, cook only local organic whole foods, meditate daily, maintain a flawless workout regimen, and transform ourselves by year’s end into some mashup of a sexy movie star, a fit Olympic athlete, and a living saint.
For the vast majority of us, such a full-life makeover is totally unrealistic. We may find ways to meditate and exercise for free, and we may manage to incorporate some better foods into our diet without breaking the bank. But it’s hard to drum up the cold, hard cash to give to a great cause when you’re working hard to pay down debt and keep the lights on.
Don’t worry, though—there are plenty of ways to give back to your community without spending money! I asked around and did some research on Twitter, and plenty of folks stepped up to share their own stories.
And giving your time doesn’t have to be confined to January and February, you can do it all year long.
1. Share a good cause on social media
Sounds easy? It is, but the help you give through such a simple action may be immense! Writer Melissa Duclos lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she works for a nonprofit organization. She says, “Sharing our e-newsletter or social media posts is a big contribution, especially if shares are personal, explaining to specific people in your network why they should subscribe [or] follow us.”
I’ve been an online advocate for Miry’s List for a few years now. Founded by a mom in Southern California, Miry’s List helps refugees from the U.S. government resettlement program furnish their homes, feed and clothe their children, register for school, learn to drive, improve their English language skills, find employment, and much more. Using Twitter and Instagram, I’ve been able to help raise a little money here and there for the organization. It feels good to help provide a special kind of welcome wagon for my new neighbors. And this year, I even got to be on the host committee for the annual gala!
Potential cost: Nothing
Reward: Feel good knowing you gave some free PR for a fine cause
2. Foster an animal
Sam Cherington, a Los Angeles-based TV writer for such shows as “Where’s Waldo?” and “Boss Baby,” suggests fostering dogs. He does it through MaeDay Rescue in Los Angeles. He says it “gets them out of the shelter and into safe homes until they get permanently adopted.”
Reputable animal rescue organizations require a potential foster parent to submit to an interview, a background check, and a home visit before being admitted to the program. You can expect the organization to pay for vaccinations, spaying or neutering, and any other necessary medical procedures for the animal. Some organizations will also cover the cost of food, toys, and bedding. You may foster the animal anywhere from a few days to much longer, depending on the agreement with the organization. To learn more, contact the Humane Society of the United States for suggestions on how to help, or find a good, ethical animal rescue organization near you.
Potential cost: Food, toys, and bedding; replacing anything an anxious dog might chew.
Reward: Free snuggles; the joy of knowing you helped give a needy animal a new chance at life.
3. Give blood
I’m a blood donor, though I don’t give nearly as often as I could. According to the American Red Cross, just one blood donation may help save more than one life. When you donate through the American Red Cross, you can count on spending about an hour at the mobile blood drive or donation site. You’ll get a mini-physical during which a technician will test your iron levels and take your heart rate. They’ll also interview you about your health history in order to determine whether it’s safe for you to donate.
After giving blood, you’ll get a snack and something to drink. Once you’re done, you’ll be on your way. Later, you may find out where your blood donation went (though not who received it, as that information is protected by privacy law.) And if you don’t know your blood type, you’ll find out! Book your appointment today via their website or their app.
Potential cost: Transportation to and from donation center.
Reward: The good feeling that comes with knowing you may have helped save lives, plus a snack.
4. Provide free space
LeAnna Hallman, a new board member at the Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles, suggests donating the use of a physical space in order to help groups that can’t afford a permanent home. Think of whether you have access to a meeting room, conference center, big lounge or storefront. Hallman adds that for her own theater company, “locations that are closed on the weekend are perfect.” To learn more, ask around to see if any local organizations are looking for meeting space—perhaps a local Girl Scouts troop, theater company, or advocacy group.
Potential cost: Any wear and tear on the space.
Reward: The satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped a good group find safe space to do its work.
5. Stock shelves at the food bank
Ian Rose, a writer in Oregon, helps pack and prepare food at his local food bank. He says, “All it costs me is a few hours of my time.” If you aren’t able to lift and reach with ease, many food banks can use administrative assistance, or greeters who can tell volunteers and clients where to go.
It should be easy to find a local food bank near you—just use Google! You may also wish to go through your faith community, or ask around at your workplace. Some companies will give you paid time off to volunteer once per month, fiscal quarter or per year, and it won’t detract from your bank of personal time off.
Potential cost: Transportation to and from the site.
Reward: Knowing that you’re helping feed hungry people in your area.
6. Help folks get back on their feet
There are many ways to do this. My friend Kambri Crews, an author and bookstore owner in Queens, N.Y., works with a nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated adults get back into the job pool. “My duties range from greeting new clients and giving them info to conducting mock interviews,” she says. Kambri is herself the daughter of an incarcerated parent, and for over four years she served as a mentor to a young girl whose mother was in prison.
Kambri’s example is a great one because she uses her own life experience as inspiration to help others. Think about ways in which you or your loved ones have struggled in the past. Is there a way for you to help those in similar circumstances? If you’ve known what it is to feel isolated or to live with food insecurity, you may want to volunteer with Meals on Wheels. You can help seniors obtain good nutrition and some much-needed human interaction.
If you remember your own caretakers being absent, or perhaps just too busy to provide some of the attention you needed, you may find service with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America to be particularly meaningful. My mom was a librarian for many years, so I’ve been thinking of becoming a library volunteer here in Los Angeles. Get creative! Plenty of places will be glad to welcome you.
To find what you’re looking for, check out Charity Navigator. You’ll see a search bar near the top of the page that allows you to look for relevant charities in your area. You can also check out their rating to ensure you’ll be giving your time to a place with a reputation for good financial and ethical practices.
Potential cost: Varies.
Reward: You’ll find greater meaning in your service because it connects to part of your own life.
There are many other ways to help, but this should be a good start. Have a wonderful year, and may we all be kinder to ourselves and to our neighbors. It may not give us six-pack abs or total inner peace, but it’ll surely warm some hearts (including our own.)