I’ve written a lot about doing social good internationally, highlighting everything from volunteering to international fellowships to launching a career in global development or human rights. But the truth is that these opportunities exist closer to home, as well. In fact, if you want to explore social good as part of your job or outside of it, lending a hand in your own country or community is a great way to get started.
Along similar lines, I’ve also introduced conversations about the challenges of doing good abroad, citing examples that include forgotten clothing donations on the side of the street in the Philippines to rusty playgrounds in Burma—important examples that highlight the fact that real change often requires more than good intentions. And these challenges don’t disappear when working close to home: While volunteering or working locally is certainly more accessible, there are important things to remember when working with community organizations to make sure you actually have an impact.
In my experience working on social issues both locally and internationally, I’ve learned that you can apply the same strategies at home as you would abroad. Here are a few ways to do social good—in an effective way—without going halfway around the world.
1. Match Your Unique Skills with What Organizations Need
Do you have a background in web design or Final Cut Pro, or have you worked as a social media manager? These types of skills can be a huge asset to local community organizations that don’t have access to big budgets to hire extra staff or a lot of resources.
Even if the work isn’t obviously philanthropic—like design, photography, or event planning—your skills can go a long way to help an overwhelmed or overworked organization get its message out, reach a new audience, or transform the office space into a better work environment.
The best way to start is through your networks. There may be opportunities offered at your office (like organizing a brown bag lunch for colleagues to discuss what moves them and what they are involved in), in alumni organizations you are a part of, and sometimes even with your local media. You can also do research on sites like Idealist or find local campaigns on Kickstarter and Indiegogo to support. Once you identify the organizations you want to get involved with, contact the organization directly and ask to talk to someone about what the expectations and time commitment are and how you can serve.
Keep in mind, though, when you’re looking for local volunteer opportunities, that what organizations may need might not perfectly align with what you want to do. A friend who helps run a local homeless shelter recently explained to me, “The season is going to start—people are going to call and want to help out around Thanksgiving and Christmas. But we don’t need people only to serve food—we need people to teach, lead job trainings, and help us make hygiene kits.”
Before you hop on board, consider the organization’s needs and what you can do to provide the most effective help. In some cases, you might be asked to do things outside of your skill set or interest. To make the most out of the experience for both parties, get a clear idea of what is needed—and determine if you’re willing to take on that assignment.
2. Get Involved in a Local Fellowship or Internship
We often look to the big, international fellowships to pursue social good work abroad, but there are similar programs in your home country that can help you gain great experience, understand the issues going on in the U.S., and develop your career in the nonprofit or philanthropic sector. In fact, if you ever do go into the field internationally, working locally first is a great way for you to have some strong experience.
You may want to consider programs such as Americorps, Teach for America, Atlas Corps, NY Teaching Fellows, or MBAX. These programs will provide you with the right environment to understand and affect major local issues in the most impactful way.
Internships can be another great way to gain some experience and in-depth insights into the inner workings of the social good space. If this is something you’re interested in, research organizations that will allow you to do more than serve coffee or make copies. Sometimes the students I work with are quick to want internships at places with high profile names, but the organizations are often so large that they aren’t able to gain much experience or show their leadership. Instead, check out internships with smaller local organizations that will allow you to get a wide range of work experience and sometimes head up big projects.
In either case, spend just as much time researching the issue you’d be working on as a whole as you do various organizations. You may think you know the lay of the land in your own community, but just as you’d research culture and background of an international field site, it’s key to understand the issues you’ll be working on domestically. For example, a friend who started working at an anti-trafficking organization understood what trafficking was like abroad, but not how it was in the U.S. She quickly realized that in order to be effective in the field, she had to change her assumptions and learn about different types of trafficking as well as state laws and federal trafficking policies.
3. Be an Effective One-Time Champion
You don’t always have to commit a lot of time to support social good. Raising funds and awareness as a one-time project can be just as effective as investing in social good long-term. Sometimes, community organizations need money to stay afloat, and as a once-a-year, annual fundraiser, you can help them meet their goals and serve as an ambassador for their cause.
Consider what you might do to help out an organization you’re interested in, whether it’s planning a suit drive at your office for Dress for Success, asking your friends to sponsor you in a 5K, or organizing a crowdfunding campaign.
To do this most effectively, recall what kinds of events or campaigns have worked well in your personal experience, and see if you can modify one of them to your chosen organization’s mission and goals. Make sure to keep it relevant to the mission and audience you are trying to target. A charity fashion show, for example, was probably a great way to raise money at your sorority, but it may not get the same response at your office. Something like a wine tasting fundraiser, on the other hand, might be a better fit. And recruit some volunteers from the organization to help run the event to ensure you stay on message—because a hunger banquet might be a good idea to educate fellow college students, but may miss the mark when you put it together at your local food bank.
And make sure that if you commit to a particular fundraiser or an event, you see it through and keep the organization in the loop regarding your progress. These kinds of events can be great ways to garner awareness and build relationships with private companies and individuals who might be interested in partnering with the organization long-term.
The reality is that you don’t need to travel far to do social good work—and working locally is just as important as international work. Start looking at opportunities nearby, and you will be surprised at how you can stay close to home and make lasting change in your own backyard.
Photo of person painting courtesy of Shutterstock.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author