How do I make a difference?
October 9, 2010 10:14 AM   Subscribe

I want to feel like I'm making the world a better place. What is a good cause to fight for?

In my late teens, my world view was simpler. I saw many problems in the world as the result of bad people doing bad things against the good people. I dealt in absolutes and saw the world as more black and white. Now I'm more aware of the gray zones.

This more nuanced view makes it harder for me to be truly engaged in a cause. I might have an opinion on it, but it's hard to fight for it when I don't know for certain that I'm completely right. For instance I can fight racism, but I can't fight for my particular view on taxation policy. This has left me feeling a void, and deep need to make a difference in the world.

I want to know about things that are simply and clearly wrong in the world, and how I can be directly involved in making them better. I'm not looking for places to donate money, I'm looking for good ways to spend my time and effort.

For what it's worth, I'm a programmer by trade, slightly entrepreneurial and I'm used to a process of thinking long and hard about a problem, building a solution and then launching it to the world. This is great for building an iPhone app, but perhaps not so much for making the world better. I am ready to step out of my comfort zone for this though.

I don't want this to derail into a political discussion, so I think it's best to keep suggestions as uncontroversial as possible.
posted by cheerleaders_to_your_funeral to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'd say child abuse is something I see as pretty black and white. I don't mean spanking; I mean burning, cutting, starving, molesting your kid type of stuff. Maybe you could collaborate with a social service agency to get education materials or outreach stuff on the net for parents and families? Or work to help families who don't use computers get access to them and learn to use them?
posted by ShadePlant at 10:19 AM on October 9, 2010

Why can't the applications you are skilled in building be those that make the world a better place for people? I hear what you are saying with regard to the grey areas and the nuances but found peace in the decision that I had certain skills, talent and abilities and the best use of them now, at this point of my life was to put them to use for a greater good than simply the profit to myself or my immediate social circle alone.

There is a great need for solutions on everything from micro insurance for those on irregular incomes in the informal economies around the developing world - for example look at the FrontlineSMS or Ushahidi platforms and their applications - to the affordable delivery of medical information/healthcare, education and general knowledge and skills transfer that the ICT platforms enable.

imho only.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 10:20 AM on October 9, 2010

Also, is a movement to utilize Coca Cola's distribution network to get medicines out to where they are needed, and attention to this program was almost wholly created by utilizing social networks.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 10:22 AM on October 9, 2010

I'm not sure if this is what you're looking for, but I think getting a sense of your values and what you feel are your priorities is the way to go here. You can see that people like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates or Oprah go through this, because there are just so many things in the world and it's hard to pick one. It sounds to me like you might benefit from doing some exploration of your interests, passions and values, as well as maybe current events. That will probably help you figure out where you want to go.

But you need not look at things in absolutes. I do a lot of informal lobbying. I write letters to newspapers, politicians, companies and organizations. The topics range from offleash dogs to snotty clerks to the need for more microloans to the poorest nations. I volunteer for a variety of organizations. I show up at protests. I go hear lecturers. I run my business with certain values and seek out clients with similar values. I intervene when I see kids being bullied on the playground. I let teachers know when kids seem to have no one taking care of them after school. I'm currently working on reducing my home'es electricity consumption by 25%. I try to be green. I live in a condo. I don't commute. I buy organic and whole foods where I can. I use my car sparingly. I aim to buy lower carbon footprint gifts. I think I do good in the world, but not under any one cause. And I'm okay with that.

However, it wasn't clear to me whether you were aiming for the biggest impact things to target. Maybe you could clear that up.
posted by acoutu at 10:27 AM on October 9, 2010

I know your question specifies making the world a better place, but how about starting by bettering just your little corner of it? I feel as though the bigger the cause, the harder it is to properly understand all the complexities involved, and the greater the likelihood of unintended consequences from any given intervention, no matter how well-intentioned. Whereas local causes, in your community or even your neighborhood, offer a chance that you might actually be able to understand all the forces involved and come to something like a reliable decision on how to act.

Granted, it's not as glamorous to start small, and it certainly doesn't provide the ego gratification of feeling sure you know how to solve the whole world's problems. But local volunteering gigs-- like, say, playing chess with residents of your local nursing home, or cleaning brush at a local park, or whatever-- to my mind offer your best shot at making an unmixedly, indubitably positive change in the world.
posted by Bardolph at 10:47 AM on October 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you want to return to absolutes, something like Human Rights Watch International? Torture, slavery, that sort of thing.

You might also consider taking one of your earlier causes and finding a group that addresses it in nuanced ways. Within any topic I've investigated, there were dozens of approaches. There probably is a group working on taxation policy in a way you'd like. If your childhood views on taxes haven't matured through lots of study, there might be an initial gulf between your view and theirs, but if you created a list of groups working on taxes and read their material, you'd probably figure out who you supported.
posted by salvia at 10:59 AM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with Bardolph. Pick up trash that isn't yours, give up seats on public transport, pay for the guy behind you in line, go out of your way to be helpful. Constructive Living, based on Morita philosophy, suggests doing an anonymous good deed at least once a day. And don't tell anyone about it.

It's not as formal as writing a donation check, or volunteering, but I think that little acts of kindness can go a long way.

Put the word out to the universe/social network that you've got these skills and you'd like to use them to help. I know this sounds sort of nebulous, but sometimes the opportunity shows itself where you least expect it.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:10 AM on October 9, 2010

Abolition of the death penalty is a cause that accommodates the grey areas of mature thought. There is always a touch of grey in legal proceedings, thus always a more than zero chance the death penalty is inappropriate. But there is no chance to reverse the dean penalty once carried out. You can walk out of prison after a lifetime of being wrongly incarcerated. For these reasons, suggest the abolition of the death penalty may suit your goal.

If you want to leave your comfort zone, talk with people who disagree with you. Keep your compassion when the parents of a slain child ask you why their child's murderer should not be put down. Oh, you'll step outside your comfort zone all right.

Forensics on phone use might reveal a person's innocence.

Good luck making a small difference for a few people. The world? You and I don't live on that scale. Be moved to tears if to can make any small change for the better.
posted by eccnineten at 11:23 AM on October 9, 2010

Somewhat previously.
posted by phunniemee at 11:28 AM on October 9, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies so far, these are all great. I think I should clarify that I'm looking for causes that are clear cut. I want to avoid the grey areas. Few people would disagree that feeding the hungry or playing chess with the elderly are Good Things. Those are the kinds of things I'm looking for.

And the small local causes are great. Global causes too. The only criteria is that I can make some impact on them, that is noticeable to me.
posted by cheerleaders_to_your_funeral at 11:48 AM on October 9, 2010

Along the line of Bardolph...You might be tripping yourself up by approaching the idea of making a difference too abstractly. Causes are great, but by themselves don't mean a hell of a lot. To use your example of fighting racism - what does that actually mean? Presumably folks want to fight racism because it profoundly impacts the lives of others in ways that are unjust and cruel. So when you fight racism, you're not fighting for a cause, you're fighting for actual people with actual lives. That's your point of entry. The same goes for poverty, the environment, human rights etc. You can't fight for an abstraction. You can fight for something you think has inherent value. The Innocence Project fights for the cause justice by advocating for real prisoners, by dedicating tangible resources, work, and talents to helping living breathing people. They don't have to ponder the true nature of justice and all of its complexities and nuances, they just have to dedicate themselves to freeing men and women who have been wrongly imprisoned.

Do you believe that every kid should have shot at a decent education? Great, find and organization that helps tutor or mentor at risk kids. Do you believe that animals have certain sovereign and inalienable rights but you're not willing to advocate for full on veganinsm? Fine, find an organization that rescues neglected and abused animals.

The nice thing about focusing on the concrete is that you side-step the need to to have absolute commitment to one worldview or another. You can still have your gray areas without being paralyzed by them.
posted by space_cookie at 11:49 AM on October 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

No one can tell what will turn you on as a cause that you can get passionate about or get committed to. But there are plenty of important things in the world that are not remotely about good people v bad people... though whether you personally actually see it that way is another matter entirely.

If you want to use your tech skills, and could see yourself getting committed to the cause of helping the world's poor, check out these sites for starters...

MIT Next Lab - "can you make a cellphone change the world?" - "Mobile-enabled social change. One SMS at a time..."

Btw, the most inspiring and successful examples of people making a difference are exactly people who didn't see the world in black and white, and did not see any people as evil.

If you haven't seen it already, check out the movie Gandhi.
posted by philipy at 11:53 AM on October 9, 2010

Another one I forgot about... if you want to get more "hands on" in the field, you might want to check out Geekcorps.
posted by philipy at 12:09 PM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Feral cat groups might fit you criteria. Where I live there are two that focus on spay/neuter which have made a big impact on the euthanasia rates in town. It's nice because one of the groups (F.A.C.E/Indy) had a graph that showed how much the rates have gone down every year.

It shocked me the first time I saw how many healthy cats and dogs were being killed every year. It's been really gratifying to see the numbers go down every year. This might not be up there with land mines or human trafficking but it's a problem with a doable solution. You can see the progress each year and when other towns and cities see the results, they're more likely to try the same methods. I like that it helps in one place and spreads to others.
posted by stray thoughts at 12:55 PM on October 9, 2010

Every nonprofit needs a tech guy or a whole tech department. Some are tiny and some are huge. I used to work at a huge one and we had need of programmers for our web, intranet, CRM, financial system reporting, and custom projects. Health issues are pretty clear cut. Heart, lungs, cancer, diabetes, whatever. Each has one or more organizations dedicated to fighting or preventing disease and helping people who are suffering and dying right now. Go be on that team. Or pick hunger, housing, poverty, environment, clean energy, or some other pressing need. They all need tech people. You'll keep doing your same thing but it won't be for somebody else's profit, it will be for betterment.
posted by Askr at 1:17 PM on October 9, 2010

Amnesty International, RAINN, Habitat for Humanity, Feeding America all do great work that I can't argue with. You can try them, or your local equivalent, which will have far fewer resources at their disposal and so might need your support more than the larger places.
posted by runningwithscissors at 1:20 PM on October 9, 2010

Donate blood, if you can.
posted by Carol Anne at 3:28 PM on October 9, 2010

My passion is bikes. They're a vast improvement over cars, they feel entirely positive, they're fun. I ride them everywhere, I spend a lot of my free time involved with the local bike-related organizations. They contribute to good health, a stronger community, and they're far more environmentally-friendly than cars.

On the other hand, a demand for bike tires led to the first rubber boom,* and have you ever biked past a mine? We literally move mountains in order to access metals and other resources. What are bikes made of? Things that are mined. Who is making these bikes? Often, it's underpaid workers in China.**

I feel the same way. I want to be engaged in "save the world"-type stuff that is entirely a Good Thing. This is impossible. There is nothing that is 100% a Good Thing. If you dig deep enough, everything is going to have some sort of negative impact somewhere. Pick something that feels relevant to your own life, learn what those negative impacts are so that you can be in a stronger position to steer your Good Thing in the right direction.

*first google result turned up the following:
In the 1870s, the development of vulcanization in Europe led to an invasion of the Upper Amazon regions of Colombia where rubber trees would eventually supply the world market. In the Putumayo river region of northern Peru and Colombia alone, 40,000 Natives were killed between 1886 and 1919 (by 1920, it's estimated that the depopulation of the rubber areas had reached 95% in some areas). In the wake of the rubber boom, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru became battlegrounds for a war between oil companies.
**First relevant Google result

posted by aniola at 3:33 PM on October 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Voltaire's book, Candide posited this question too. What do you do in the face of the great problems of the world? Voltaire's answer which is echoed in some of the responses so far was "Cultivate your back garden", that is, do all the good you can, where you are. If everyone did this, the world would indeed be a better place.
posted by storybored at 8:04 PM on October 9, 2010

Become a Big Brother/Big Sister.
Teach someone English.
Donate blood.
Serve food at a soup kitchen.
Visit old people in a nursing home.
Volunteer for park clean up days.
Work on a suicide hotline.
Volunteer for a domestic violence hotline.
Work at an animal shelter.
Help out with Meals on Wheels.
Read to someone who is blind.
Volunteer at a community garden.

I could go on and on, but the point of this is that there are as many ways to make the world better as you can think of. What's important is that you find something you will actually stick to. Volunteering at a nursing home doesn't help a whole lot if you show up once, hate it and never go back.

My recommendation would be to think about something you might actually enjoy. Which sounds like cheating, but it's not. Do you like knitting? Then make knitted hats for kids with cancer. Do you enjoy animals? Help out at the animal shelter. The world is so full of needs that it really doesn't matter what you choose to do. As long as you do something. Worrying about what is the "right" cause is pointless. Just think about the cause that resonates with you.
posted by missjenny at 5:31 AM on October 10, 2010

Nearly everything can be considered to have positives and negatives. This is a decision you have to make for yourself. Even if it is something along the lines of helping to promote internet proliferation in poor countries.
posted by knapah at 8:13 AM on October 10, 2010

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