The Humanist Dilemma: Feeling Philanthropic: Where to Begin?

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Humanist Giving: With all the horrible things going on, locally and globally, I am paralyzed about the best way to help. Should I volunteer, and if so, where and how? Should I give money, and if so, to whom? There are so many causes that seem worthy, but I’m only one person with limited means, time, and energy. What is the best way to make the most impact? I can do both—volunteer and donate—but not a whole lot of either.

—Help Me Help


Dear Help:

My advice about this is similar to advice I gave (futilely) to a friend who spent six months working on his resume, holding off until he deemed it perfect before sending it to anyone. It’s good enough already, I told him, just get it out there before any more opportunities pass you by!

You can’t help anyone while you’re waiting to find the ideal charity or volunteering gig. Just start giving and doing. You can fine-tune at any point, and you’ll have a better idea of what your preferences are once you do something, anything. In the meantime you’ll be having some positive impact, even if it may not initially be the optimum way to go about it or the approach you will eventually favor.

That said, I have a few general guidelines:

  • In a state of emergency, listen to what first responders are calling for and do that. For instance, don’t board a plane to help people with no water or electricity, or they will end up having to help you. If the wisdom is to drop off canned food but not blankets, deliver cans (and if they want blankets, not cans, give blankets). If the plea is for everyone to send money so those at the scene can decide how best to spend it, send money. And if a local church is collecting food, clothing, and furniture for families whose homes burned down, donate through the church—even if, on principle, you’d rather not donate through a church. (That said, if there’s also a reliable secular organization shuttling donations to the needy families, do that.)
  • Make sure any organization you donate time or money to is reputable. Use services such as Charity Navigator to check them out. You want to work with those who are giving the lion’s share to the stated beneficiaries, not to their staff or leaders. Yes, the people who run charities deserve salaries and benefits, but perhaps not private jets and luxury junkets. Charitable organizations that are bloated and top-heavy should be avoided in favor of those that are lean and effective.
  • For donations of money, pick one or a few organizations to maximize your impact. Sending $100 to a single organization has the potential to get most of that $100 where it’s needed. Sending $5 to each of twenty organizations may cost each organization more in paperwork and postage than it clears.
  • For volunteer work, it’s fine to be self-interested. Do something you can enjoy so that you’ll be inclined to keep doing it. Do something that uses skills you have that the organization needs. For instance, if you’re happy to stuff envelopes, by all means go ahead and help with mailings. But if you’re much better suited to writing those fundraising appeals, find a place that will welcome and harness your talent. If you’re looking to get out and get exercise, volunteer to clean up a local park or monitor children at recess. If you want to widen your social network, find a friendly group to join in a team effort. If you like to march, march. If you prefer to call your member of Congress or fellow constituents, work the phones. Decide if you want to volunteer for events that occur once or once in a while, versus efforts you can make part of your monthly, weekly, or daily routine.
  • Once you’ve screened out scams and screened in quality programs, deciding which organizations are “best” is a matter of personal taste and preference. Some people focus on rescuing animals while others dedicate themselves to children or forests or sculptures. Some help hungry people on the other side of the globe, while others give a sandwich to a person camping out at the nearby bus station. Some grant a last wish to a dying child, others support a hospital that saves children’s lives. Do your research and do your best to know where your funds or efforts will be going, and then do what resonates with you.

I also have a few guidelines specific to humanists and other secular activists:

  • As noted above, sometimes the best way to help a community is through their local religious organizations. In those cases, it’s fine to make financial donations, help in their food pantry, or wherever you can be of assistance. But whenever there’s an equally sound secular alternative, opt for that. Secular organizations (including the American Humanist Association) are making major strides on the front lines to help people locally and globally, whether they’re victims of natural disasters or those fleeing death threats for supporting secular views and human rights.
  • When you are doing volunteer work, be frank (but not overbearing) about your nontheistic views—particularly if you’re working within a religious organization. Let everyone see that people really are good without a god.

For in-depth information on the ins and outs of helping, check out the New York Times’ guides to making the world a better place.