Save the whales. Promote breast cancer awareness. Support gay marriage. Help end poverty. Support our troops. Stop global warming.
Each cause or foundation backed by dozens, hundreds, thousands of zealous supporters. They knock on your door. They mail you fliers and email you petitions. They pay for internet ads and billboards. How do we decide which cause(s) are most worth our money and support?
Does your annual donation of $20 to the Salvation Army really make a difference? Singularly, no, probably not. But with the donations of 50,000 or 500,000 others, yes, probably so. However, I think people make the most difference not with small cash donations to large and sometimes bureaucratically ensnared organizations, but by directly contributing their skills to help others. An oncologist who offers to make educational fliers about the contribution of smoking to lunger cancer is probably doing more than if he or she made a singular $75 contribution to the American Cancer Society. Of course, that money might contribute to the creation of such fliers, but perhaps not until it had been passed down through various administrative tiers (local treasurer in charge of donations, administrator in charge of educational material, maybe actually paying someone to make the fliers).
Even if you’re no specialist in medicine, environmental conservation, or global economics, you can always help by setting up recycling bins in your grandparents’ homes or at your school. You can have a serious conversation with your younger siblings about why it’s wrong to bully someone about their sexual orientation.
I am not opposed to charities, aid foundations, and other NGO’s. They do things that individuals can’t. But at the same time, don’t buy a bumper sticker or a box of Girl Scout cookies just to feel satisfied or even smug that you’ve done your share to help others. If you want to make a difference (and it’s ok if you don’t), also think about how you can be most useful to the world. It’s not always going to be your checkbook.
*An actual bumper sticker seen by the one and only Mrs. Teukolsky, reported to her AP Computer Science students.