The Guilt-Free Guide To Giving Back
We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to give back to our communities, but it can feel daunting. I still hear my reluctant teenager voice freaking out at the idea of spending an entire Saturday volunteering at a nursing home. Feeling awkward, not knowing what I'm doing, wondering if it even matters still plague me as an adult. I mean, I know it's bigger than me and shouldn't matter, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel wonky and - dare I say it - selfish on occasion.
We think we need to have a certain set of skills, a longterm time commitment, more money than we have to give, or any other reason that keeps you on the sidelines of diving in. Those reasons are real and you're allowed to feel them, but they don't have to stop you from engaging in a part of life that's deeply rewarding, not just because you're helping people who might need it but because in helping, you realize you're no better than anyone else.
Here's to reminders of our shared humanity.
Here's where we start: invest in your community the way you'd invest in a friend.
You care about your community and want to get to know it better, right? Then let's approach this like a friendship.
When you hang out with someone for the first time, you accept the awkwardness. You reluctantly but willingly wade through the silent stretches. You hang out again despite those.
You start to find common ground. You share what you care about, what you're good at. You listen. You develop a posture of affection toward that person. You might not see her on a regular basis, but that doesn't mean the relationship isn't meaningful.
When we value someone and know what they value, our antennae is always up to find connection. The same can be true as we develop a relationship with our community.
Giving back doesn't have to be a drudgery; it's an investment in something you care about, in activating our community antennae and seeing how to connect even more. When we change how we see giving back, actually doing it becomes a gift.
A friendly reminder: you don't have to do everything. Accept that now, please. Amen.
But how do you get started? How do you connect with your community in a way that brings you and it life? Two things.
- Identify what you love to do.
- Identify who you want to love on.
Are you a painter? A cook? A numbers nerd? Do you geek out over creating resumés? Are you good at building things, at organizing groups of people, at making a space look and feel beautiful?
Name the thing you're good at and love to do.
Next, who do you care about deep in your bones? Who breaks your heart in the best way? Young kids? Teenagers who are on the edge of their creative potential? Battered women? People who have no local family? Refugees? The illiterate? College students far from home? Veterans transitioning back into civilian life? Folks getting out of prison and trying to get a job? The homeless? Teachers? Police officers? Nurses? Small business owners trying to make it in a world of Walmarts?
The list is endless, but you don't have to meet every person on that endless list. That's impossible and also not super helpful. Instead of drowning in a sea of volunteering possibilities, hone in what you love to do and who you want to love on.
Passion + People Examples
- passion for reading + a heart for older folks in longterm care = starting a book club at a local nursing home
- passion for gardening + a heart for refugees living in apartment buildings = volunteer at or start a community garden
- passion for coaching baseball + a heart for teenagers not good enough to make the school team = call your local YMCA and get plugged in
- passion for painting + a heart for battered women and children = donate simple art supplies to a women's shelter and even see if you can facilitate a time of making with no agenda but your presence
- passion for gathering people around the table + a heart for the homeless = serve at a soup kitchen or make extra dinner and drive around until you see someone on the street with a sign, offer them food, say hello, and even eat with them if they're comfortable
- passion for accounting + a heart for veterans = running a workshop at the local VA on how to budget or donating your time to help do folks' tax returns
Combine what you love with the people you want to love, and then move into your community with the posture of a friend. Bring your fullest, truest self, your most curious self, a self that is there to serve but also to learn, to listen, to laugh, and to simply be a human alongside other humans.
Imagine if we all give back to our communities in ways that make us come alive! Everyone is operating out of a sense of authenticity and passion, not guilt and overwhelm. I'm not saying you'll never lie in bed and curse the 7am community garden meeting, but none of us ever do anything with complete joy from start to finish. We're selfish people who need the tiniest nudge in the direction of otherness, and once we're there, we're there to stay.
So now what? You have these ideas or the beginning of an idea; how do you find organizations that are doing what you want to do?
1. Google it.
For real. If you want to connect with an organization that teaches ESL classes to immigrant adults, Google "adult ESL class [your city]." Start there, and see where it leads.
2. Start with what everybody has.
Hospitals, schools, libraries, churches, animal shelters, city council meetings, nursing homes, YMCAs, The Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, The United Way, Meals on Wheels... so many wheels have been invented. You don't necessarily need to invent another one (unless you do and then blow it up, girl), but don't get overwhelmed by all the options and also that there are none. Know your passion, pick a local organization that everybody has, and check a website, make a phone call, or pop in to say "I'm interested in volunteering."
3. Be a member of the community.
Successful small businesses often lead to more jobs to folks in the margins and a more vibrant local economy, so shop at independent bookstores, buy from farmers, and support local artists and makers when it's time to buy a gift. Attend city council meetings. Go to local music festivals. Sit on the street during a local parade. Support school fundraisers. Don't overcomplicate being part of the community. Simply take opportunities to see your city from all angles. Not everything will be great, but so what! Go to the festival, buy a funnel cake from a food cart, see faces you might not see otherwise, take photos, say hello, smile warmly at strangers, take fliers from people who are letting you know about their nonprofit or their poetry reading or their local production of The Wizard of Oz.
Giving back is simply being part. It's seeing beyond ourselves and noticing that our cities have a lot of needs to meet, from food and housing to park restoration and library story times, from candid and nuanced discussions about racial inequality to filling all the slots for a summer parade. We can help meet those needs. We can engage in so many ways with a variety of resources, and we don't have to hate it. In fact, giving back and taking part from the deepest parts of our passions and desires is literally what will change the world.
Live your passions, love generously, treat your community like you would a friend, and see what happens.