What Can I Do to Help? How to Do Good When You Feel You Can’t Make a Difference

During times of stress and upheaval, it's easy to feel like it's too big and you can't do anything. Here's how to do good no matter where you are.

As humans, we often feel as though we're masters of the universe. But the universe has a way of reminding us that, in many ways, we are kind of small. When big upheavals come our way, it's common to feel overwhelmed. And wonder what we can do to help.

I've had several conversations in the last two weeks with people who have felt frustrated by their seeming impotence. So let's talk about how to do good.

Before we get started, though, I want to point folks to an amazing resource from my friend Erin at Broke Millennial. She has put together a hub of websites and programs that can help you navigate the current Coronavirus situation. However, many of the resources listed will still be available when COVID-19 is in the past. 

Realize That You Can't Help Everyone

This first is a kind of Debbie Downer moment. It's what I'm known for, so I might as well stay on brand.

Your first step is to realize you can't help everyone. I mean, you know you can't help everyone. Intellectually, that's a no-brainer.

However, when you look around and see how many people need help, it tugs at your heartstrings. You want to help everyone in your sphere of influence — and go beyond. It's natural to want to do everything for everyone.

When you realize you can't, and your actual ability to immediately impact the situation is limited, it can be paralyzing. You might feel like there's no reason to do anything because it will never be enough. It's imperative that we get beyond this.

Acknowledge that you can't help everyone and you can't do everything. That's the first step when you want to learn how to do good. It's disappointing to recognize your limitations, but it's vital if you want to be able to move beyond inaction and into making a difference.

Be prepared to do the intellectual and emotional work that comes with knowing your limitations. Once you do that, you can take a step back, evaluate the situation, stop beating yourself up for what you can't do and focus on the positive actions within your reach.

Start With One Action — Even If It Feels Small

Next, start with one action, even if it feels small. The truth is that if you make a positive difference for one person, you've still made a positive difference. It matters.

One of my favorite concepts was in a fantasy novel by Sharon Shinn. They talked about how the main character tried to make whatever corner of the world she was in better. I liked that. I try my best to live by that.

You can, too.

Would it be nice if we had big systemic issues solved? Yes. I'd love it if we could trust those in charge right now to do the right thing. But we can't.

You do have control over some (not always all) of what's going on in your own life — and in your neighborhood. You can influence what's happening in your city. Do good there. Some cool examples of things happening in my local area right now include:

  • Mutual aid groups on Facebook
  • Coordinated effort at my son's school to match needs with supplies
  • Local business owner putting in orders for needed staples and letting people buy them from her at cost during this time when some things are hard to find on grocery store shelves
  • People checking on their neighbors and offering help

It doesn't seem like a lot, but I took some items I had into my son's school after reading the list of family needs. While it's not earthshattering, I hope the families that get those food and personal hygiene items make use of them.

Once you figure out how to do good at this small scale, you can start taking other actions that have a positive impact on others, even if you don't leave the house.

Simple Actions You Can Take to Do Good

  • Donate to your local food bank: One of my good friends is the director of the Community Food Basket in town. He anticipates the need rising in a big way. Check into your own local resources and look at Feeding America for nearby food banks. Many take online financial donations. Consider other charities as well.
  • Give blood: From what I understand, blood is coming in short supply. If you're healthy and able and taking precautions, consider giving blood. This will be important for hospitals in the coming months.
  • Find out what others need and have it shipped to them: One of my amazing friends had a case of water shipped to another who couldn't get access to it at the store. The supply chain is all messed up right now. If you have access to something others need, be generous and send it to them.
  • Offer to complete errands for those who can't: Community members who might be unable to go out and get needed supplies could use some help. Offer to run errands, go to the store, whatever. You can leave supplies on the doorstep if necessary.
  • Support local businesses: I love this one. My son and I have made it a point to order delivery from local eateries since this started. I'm also tipping the delivery people larger amounts. If it's relatively safe for you to do so, ordering from local businesses can be a big help. I'm also checking which small boutiques in town have websites and which I can call to make orders. Buy gift cards now, to provide cash flow as it's needed.
  • Help a friend: If you have a friend who has a business, continue supporting their efforts. Whether it's buying a book or a course or spreading the love for something they offer, do what you can.
  • Reach out to those in isolation: While it's not the same as in-person contact, consider reaching out to those who are in isolation through text, video chat or a call. I'm writing a letter to my grandpa, who's in an assisted living facility in another state.

Do What Works for You

I'm not gonna lie. It's easier for me to give money to causes and consider social finance efforts than it is to be on the ground floor interacting with others. So I do my best to support relief efforts financially while admiring those who actually get their hands dirty.

Maybe you don't have the financial resources to give, or maybe you like the personal connection you get from volunteering. Either way, you learn how to do good by being on the ground. Organize supplies and see that they're delivered. Serve meals at the soup kitchen. Give blood. These are actions that are as valuable as money. And they make a difference.

Our local food basket wasn't able to get a needed shipment of eggs. One of my friends, who owns a truck, was able to step up and go get those eggs from the source and bring them. That was a huge help because he had the time and resources to make it happen.

Everyone has different strengths. Play to yours. Don't assume you have to do things the same way others do. You can do good with what you have.

How to Do Good on a Larger Scale

Once you get used to how to do good in small ways, it's not unusual to want to take the next step. So how do you do good in a way that impacts the world at large?

My solution remains to start small. Right now, many of our systemic issues are laid bare. They've been here all along. But now they glare at us. And they seem huge. But there's not a lot we can do overnight to effect massive, top-down change.

I'm a firm believer in starting where you have the most influence. So that's why I start local. I have:

  • Served on school district committees
  • Served on mayoral committees
  • Given to local charities
  • Supported local events and causes
  • Given testimony to the state legislature
  • Called government officials to ask them to change policies
  • Chaired a local political party

And, right now, I'm running for a state legislative seat.

You don't need to run for office to make a difference. Volunteer at the animal shelter and work with your local policymakers to enact animal-friendly laws. If you work with your local youth arts council, you can lobby your city council for policies and funding that furthers the cause. When your state legislature passes unjust laws, contact your governor to ask for a veto — and recruit your friends to do the same.

There are so many things you can do, connected to what you're passionate about, to advocate for better laws and policies. Whether you work with nonprofits, political organizations or just show up and be involved, you can start to make a change at the ground level.

Active and engaged citizens make a difference. They elect better people to public office. They serve as a check on lawmakers. Pay attention, hold elected leaders accountable and we'll see change.

The work can be difficult. Sometimes it's discouraging. But once you learn how to do good, it's hard to stop.

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