Activate! Tips to organize something good in your own backyard

What types of activities come to mind when you think of volunteering? Do you picture things like planting trees, serving food to those in need, organizing a fundraiser, or going on a mission trip? Most of those activities require coordination with organizations like nonprofits and local governments, which can be challenging to work into your schedule. Many of us can’t realistically commit to a recurring opportunity at an organization, and some days, you just don’t have time to go through scheduling and orientation.

But don’t feel guilty — you’re not alone! While about a quarter of U.S. adults volunteered in 2015, only 36% of them did so through an organized event with a nonprofit.*

So, how did they volunteer?

Contrary to our mental image of “typical” volunteering, the majority of U.S. volunteering (about 63%*) is happening in our backyards. This is often called “informal” or “self-motivated” volunteering, but put simply, it really just means Americans are lending a helping hand in our neighborhoods when we see a need.

Many of these acts of service are situational, but you can easily serve your neighborhood without someone directly asking for your help. We’ve put together 3 common ways you can help out — no matter if you have 5 minutes or 5 hours.

Idea #1: Be a steward of your block — strategies to safely clean up litter in a park

Start off by assessing the scope of the location you want to clean up, and compare that to how much time and how many helpers you’ll have. While you may want to clear trash throughout the whole park, you may only have a spare hour. Consider concentrating on a small radius instead.

To make a game of it, consider treating your cleanup like a treasure hunt for the most unusual item — or bring friends! Depending on where you live, you may need to grab a liability waiver from your local park service (See this sitefor more guidance.)

Before you head out, gather supplies. You’ll need thick work gloves. Grab a handful of garbage bags to sort out trash vs. recycling, and plan to transport them to collection sites after. In case you encounter sharp objects (like broken bottles) bring a first aid kit and wear long sleeves, pants and close-toed shoes. Bring a disposable household broom and dustpan with you to sweep up hazardous debris. Last but not least, bring plenty of water and get out there!

Idea #2: Be a conscious giver — how to make meaningful care packages for the homeless

It’s often a struggle to determine how best to help our homeless neighbors. Recently many leading veterans organizations and placement programs have said donating spare change is not the best way we can help the those in need. Instead, we can create potentially life-saving impact by assembling care packages for them.

This activity is super fun with a group of friends. You can divide a list amongst the group’s weekly shopping and meet up to assemble the care packages together. If you opt to make them by yourself, be sure to grab at least one other person to help you hand them out in public spaces.

Be prepared to spend a few minutes with the people you give the care packages to; this is a good opportunity to hear some of their story. But make sure you know your limits and feel empowered to transition out of the conversation if it’s too much. At the end of the day, that genuine human connection may mean just as much — if not more — than the care package itself.

Here’s a guide to creating awesome care packages:

  • Start with your container. Use a clear, gallon ziploc bag for your package, so that the recipient can see exactly what they’re getting. Couple that with a handwritten list of each item inside.
  • Avoid any chewy foods. Granola is a common snack donated, but it often times is little better than candy and is a disaster for those with tooth problems.

Simply choose a mix of 5–10 items from this list. Pack it in your ziploc and you are set to make a big difference!

  • Chapstick
  • Travel-sized lotion or moisturizer
  • Band-aids and Neosporin
  • Baby wipes
  • Advil
  • Socks
  • Feminine hygiene products, especially pads
  • Travel-sized deodorant
  • Toothbrush and travel-sized toothpaste
  • Travel tissues
  • Headlamp
  • Raisins
  • Applesauce cups
  • Lunchables
  • Beef jerky
  • Bottled water
  • Chewable vitamins
  • Sugar-free mints

Idea #3: Be a remote volunteer — how to impact others through digital channels

“Micro-volunteering” is a growing trend amongst young people in the UK, US, and Australia that promotes bite-sized, usually digital volunteering that doesn’t require any set schedule or commitment. (For more info, check out this helpful overview from The Guardian.)

The key benefit is maximum flexibility. Because of this, the activities could range anywhere from playing internet games that donate money to good causes to searching missing persons databases to e-mentoring someone halfway across the world. This flexibility is very powerful — it enables those of varying abilities, transit access, and work schedules to all contribute to a good cause on their own terms.

There are a growing number of micro-volunteering resources, with the main database of activities being the site Help from Home.

Want to raise money for a nonprofit or a friend with insurmountable healthcare costs? Start a Facebook Fundraiser.

Interested in contributing to academic research? Crowdcrafting is for you.

How cool would it be to lend your sight to the visually impaired? Turns out there’s an app called BeMyEyes that connects the two of you via a video connection.

And this is just the start of this growing movement.

Get out there and do good!

The beautiful thing about all types of self-motivated service is that it truly embraces equal-opportunity volunteering. No matter where you live, how much time you have, or what your abilities are — you have the power to contribute something of real worth to those around you.

*https://www.nationalservice.gov/vcla/national