Donating, Volunteering, Shadowing

Thank you for your interest, but I respectfully decline. Here’s why, and some tips on how you might get involved somewhere else. It doesn’t matter what sort of charitable work my organization does, these thoughts can apply anywhere. Here we are not 501(c)3, so you get no tax writeoff, but you do get a blog post worth about as much as you paid for it:

Donating Objects: Years ago we tried a system where you could donate old shoes or dishes for poor people to receive. It failed miserably, mostly because it bred entitlement — not from the people receiving the items, but from the donors. “You won’t take my used couch?” I remember one person screaming this at my staff on the phone, while I thought how we had no way to store or transport it. We had become a dumping ground for materialism, like how recycling trucks apparently soothe consumption guilt. Sorry, we won’t do that for you: there is a Thrift Store literally on the same block. They have tremendous experience getting your extra sweaters into this community in a dignified manner. I have lost count of the number of people who have left unsolicited items in our building thinking someone would take them. No sign, just a pile of clothes or books. They are assuming that poor people are thieves who think everything has a zero ground score time. They aren’t, so these items just sat untouched until I took them to the Arc, which was hard because my car is small and my time is limited. Please donate your stuff to a thrift store, preferably in a poor neighborhood.

Donating Money: Our business moves a few million dollar a year, of which only a few hundred is from well-meaning donations. So unless your donation has a few zeros, it isn’t really helping us, it is just helping you feel good. And I don’t want you to feel good for making such a small difference; I want to encourage you to do much more! I love that you appreciate what we do and want to support us, but your kind message and supportive words are enough!

Donating Time: For skilled tasks (healthcare in our example) we generally don’t want you to come in just a couple hours per week. That is not enough time to learn our systems or populations, and results in us having to fix your mistakes, or spend more time training, all of which makes your volunteering a net time suck for us. Our work is not so simple that you can just show up and be immediately useful. Even painting requires skill, lest it be sloppy. And what about our unskilled tasks…. Wait, do you really want to do unskilled labor? I humbly suggest you try to find a way to parlay your day job skills into something useful to others on a bigger scale, or even just quit your day job and work somewhere more fulfilling, even if it makes less money. I had one medical provider who was eager to volunteer with us because she found her day job soulless, but when I offered her paid work, she haggled with me over the pay. Huh? That said, we do have one task where volunteers are indispensable: our Scout group, but it is a rare person that wants to spend 48 hours once a month with 30 rowdy kids who aren’t their own. Please let us know if you do. You might have to give up your own weekend plans though…

Shadowing or Interviewing: I understand you are looking for a bit of inspiration or to even learn methods how to serve others. We get many such requests to shadow, intern, or interview, from grade schoolers to CEOs. If I entertained each one, I would have no time to myself. Even taking on one shadower for a day, or talking to one lunch meeting, results in me losing 1–2 hours if I want to do it right. I am an introvert and need my down time! And please don’t ask my staff or tenants: they are busy doing their work — unless you want to pay them good money to talk to you. Some places have paid me thousands of dollars to speak, and I have spoken to groups of thousands of people at a time. That sounds conceited, but it may put in perspective why I have to decline your request — bring a bigger group and I might consider. I would rather spend that time with my kid, or jogging, or doing my work. If you are looking for inspiration or tools regarding what we do, please view the dozens of media links at the bottom of our website, and read some of my previous ramblings.

Having said “no”, now here are things you CAN do:

It is fantastic if you want to increase how much of your time or money you give to a cause. We need more people like you! Humans have an innate desire to help, but most people don’t know how to go about it. Please allow me to make make some not so humble suggestions:

  1. If you need motivation to get started, you need to understand that you have ridiculous privilege compared to most of the world. This includes your health, education, lack of melanin, and family farm from generations ago that Abe stole you from the Native Americans. No you didn’t work to get where you were, you were born into it. Once you realize that………
  2. If you donate an object you used, that means you are giving your trash. If you donate a brand new object that you bought, that is much better, but you need to understand the needs of the recipient, and most donors of objects never do. If you give the recipient money, that is best. Whether the recipient is the panhandler on your street corner or in a village on the other side of the world, don’t question what they will do with the money. Just let it go. There is significant research that cash is best, and some literature that suggests giving to the matriarch of a family is even better.
  3. If you spend $1500 on a flight to go somewhere for a month to help others who live on $15 a month, you need to check your intentions at the airport. They have plenty of smart people where you are going — Unless you have a special skill, they don’t need you. Stay home and send the money instead. If you give $100 to a cause but make $100k a year, that is lame. If you find yourself giving 40% of your income, now we are talking!
  4. If you get paid money, what you are doing is not service, it is a job. Even risky employment like firefighting or military is still voluntary employment, unless you were conscripted.
  5. If you get a free T-shirt or sticker for your volunteering, consider that pay. It cheapens your effort. If you buy an unrelated product in order to donate, remember that a large part of your donation is going to the unrelated product, like Girl Scout Cookies or when Chipotle gives some kickback to your school. It’s a terribly inefficient method of giving, but if thats the only way you are going to motivate to, then go eat some burritos and cookies.
  6. If you have to compete to do something, even if unpaid, that is not service. Becoming a fireman takes tremendous competition because it is a prestigious job even if unpaid. Find something that no one else is doing, and you will be on a better path of service.
  7. Recognition also cheapens service, because ego boosting is worth more than money. I once was involved in an organization that espoused service but gave nonstop plaques, patches, and photo opportunities for social media. Don’t be that person. Some people call politics service, even though that involves competition, recognition, and pay. I suggest you give your money and time as anonymously as possible. (I wish I could still be anonymous, but I realize I have some kind of inspirational role here.)
  8. If you give three hours to an endeavor, that’s kinda lame. It probably cost the organization more effort to deal with you than the benefit you gave the organization. If you have devoted years of your life, that’s fantastic.
  9. Here is a recipe to increase your service in a big way: Reduce your own lifestyle (car, house, objects) so you spend less. This may mean you have to move to a poorer neighborhood and take some risks (like your kid not getting as fancy an education?), but that will get you closer to a target service audience anyway. This is privilege alleviation as a voluntary method of wealth transference, because our capitalist tax system doesn’t do a good job of that. If you want to make a difference, you have to give up privilege until you are inconvenienced. Take what you save on lifestyle reduction and give it to others, either directly or by donating large amounts to some organization that helps others. Or, since you will need less income, change your career to one where you make less money but make more of a difference, using whatever current job skills you have. Of course none of this is easy, but if you want easy, just give $100 or three hours of your time.
  10. You want to start small? Here is one tip to get you started: carry cash. Forget your skinny jeans or your cell phone credit card holder. Carry a wad of ones, fives, and tens every time you leave the house. Give them to panhandlers, leave it for tips at your hotel or for the person who cleans your rental car, or just pay small businesses with it rather than using your credit card for everything. If you don’t know why small businesses prefer cash, go ask your mother. Let your kids see you giving cash to people less fortunate: that is more impressionable for them than your massive online donations. If you can’t bring yourself to follow this tip, then fake it til you make it, and soon your lifestyle of service will become second nature.
  11. Another tip: be early wherever you go. Read the first few paragraphs of this article. Even if you don’t have money to give, you will recognize that you have time you can give.

Thanks for reading. Now get out there and make a difference in a big way!

This is making a difference in a small way, but I needed a picture…

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Social justice efforts of a family doc, scoutmaster, and social worker for refugees. Since 2012.

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P.J! Parmar

Social justice efforts of a family doc, scoutmaster, and social worker for refugees. Since 2012.