During the holiday season, words like “values”, “impact”, and “empathy” feel especially relevant. People across the economic spectrum feel drawn to giving back to their communities and the causes that matter to them. But during this busy time of year, translating good intentions into action can feel overwhelming — at worst, even paralyzing.
So, where do we go from here? How can we really make a difference?
When the Desai Foundation became a public foundation, the first thing we learned is that people were not sure how to give, when to give, or how much to give. The “giving” phenomenon is often wrapped up in monetary donations and recognition, but we forget that giving is really about service. And we can all serve in different ways.
Here are five simple ways you can be a change agent right now:
Follow your values
Your values are the principles that guide you in your everyday decision-making, in your relationships, and in your work. Take a moment to identify what is most important to you, then find an organization that aligns with those values — even if it is just about the structure or the transparency of that organization. When you give time or money to that organization, you are voting for your values.
Another way to identify your core values is to consider what infuriates you beyond measure. What gets your heart rate up? Is it your friend’s carelessly racist comments? Is it the fact that more than 3 billion people in the world still live in poverty while a broken “aid” system remains unaddressed? Choose one thing that really upsets you and then vow to contribute at least one hour a week to a related cause. You will be surprised how that one hour can translate into a life-long passion for a cause.
Write your own definition of impact
Impact is the buzzword of the day, but it’s also a word that has no objective definition. Whether we recognize it or not, we all have an impact — good or bad. And every dollar you spend goes to a company that also has an impact — good or bad. To me, impact is about turning your values into action.
My friend Payal Kadakia, who is the founder of ClassPass, always says that she wants her business to help people live their lives at their full potential. She wants to encourage people to lead a healthier and more joyful life, and she is making that a reality through a revolutionary company and service that reaches millions of people.
Another good friend, Megan Hannum, partner at FundedBuy, prefers a more one-on-one approach to impact. She volunteers regularly at The Pajama Reading Program and Experience Camps. She likes to give back by connecting with people on a personal level.
Don’t forget, impact doesn’t always have to be about quantity. It should be about the quality of the impact you make — even if it’s just on one person's life.
Identify your community
The beauty of community is that it can mean so many different things. If you’re a minority or second-generation immigrant, you may consider other people who share your cultural and geographical background to be your community. But your community also includes the people who live to your right and to your left. It’s likely that they are different from you, and they probably could benefit from something that only you can provide — and vice versa. By definition, community is a two-way street, so be open to learning as you serve.
True community development involves serving the communities that serve us. By pouring our resources, time and energy into these regions or people, we’re quite literally “giving back,” while sustaining a universal system that was never meant to be linear.
Think small (and targeted) when you give
If you have the resources to donate cold hard cash, do it! It’s definitely needed. But consider focusing on small to medium-sized organizations. Large organizations like UNICEF and The Red Cross serve a purpose, but they’re often well-padded with government funding and major donations from majorly-wealthy people.
Smaller nonprofits can be a much more impact-potent place for your dollar. If you give locally, too, you may also be able to develop a closer relationship to the organization and its founders, which will provide a much clearer understanding of how your donation is being used.
Another suggestion is to consider lowering your holiday gift budget by, say, $5 or $10 per gift. Give the money you’ve saved to an organization that fits your values and that you’ve researched thoroughly. You can even include a note about your donation in your holiday card to help spread the word about the organization that you chose! Small organizations usually don’t have much money to spend on marketing, so letting your social network know about their good work is another way you can help.
Think beyond dollar signs
Most importantly, every single person on this planet has something to give and something to offer. This could be our time, our connections, our voice, a smile, or a hug — giving does not need to be measured by dollar signs.
What can you do to make a difference in someone’s life?
We are all good at something – regardless of the size of our wallet. Consider what you have to offer that supports a cause you care about. It can be any number of things — time, cooking, legal expertise, social media skills, mentorship, organizational skills, or even just introductions to people in your network.
Author and international speaker, Nilofer Merchant, gives an incredible TED Talk on what she calls our “onlyness” — that thing that each individual offers the world that no one else can.
Speaking from experience, when someone calls the Desai Foundation and says they want to get involved, we find a role for them. And if we don’t have something for them right away, we direct them to one of our incredible partner organizations.
Just like any other company, nonprofits need smart people to provide a variety of skills that advance the goals of the organization.
It’s no longer an option to do nothing, and it’s more important than ever to give as much as we take. Luckily for us, we have all the tools we need right now — in this very moment — to create change on a scale beyond our dreams. And as we like to say at the Desai Foundation, everyone deserves the chance to dream beyond.
How are you planning on giving back this holiday season?
Megha Desai is the President of the Desai Foundation, an organization that empowers women and children through community programming to elevate health and livelihood both in the U.S. and in India. She is also the Founder of MSD (Marketing. Strategy. Dharma.) a branding and strategic partnership advisory serving social good and startup brands. Megha sits on the board of NPR's Generation Listen and lives in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @Meghatron5.