December 11th, 2013

Give and Get Well in 2014

Now is the right time to give.

From now until the end of the year most of us will spend our time stuffing our faces with holiday treats, standing in line for last minute sales, and (hopefully) reveling in the company of our close friends and family. Our inboxes will be a little lighter and the cold will keep us in our apartments, or the lack thereof will send us running through airports and vacationing in places we don't normally call our homes. While we all take some time and space from our normal routines to breathe this holiday season, we should start thinking about how to better give to those who are less fortunate than us in 2014.

Maybe these are people in your hometown or maybe they're living in parts of the world you've never seen, but there are millions of people living without the basic necessities we take for granted every day.

Sometimes the world's problems — poverty, starvation, corruption, just to name a few — can seem totally overwhelming. "I can't change the world, I'm just one person" you might say.

Things are changing. Technology has started giving us access to communities in need and the ability to give directly to people in places that otherwise would seem unreachable.

Recent Passion Projects speaker, Ligaya Tichy, gave a talk at GitHub HQ about giving charitably. Here are a few action steps that she laid out to start giving better and more responsibly:

1. Do a little bit of research.

It's important to know how charities spend their money and how much of a real impact they're having.

The good news is that Givewell.org has done some (or most) of the work for you. You can search for charities and non-profits on their site, and they'll give you a breakdown of where the money is going. They also do an analysis of each non-profit to determine how much of an impact they're making toward their relative cause.

2. Choose a cause.

Decide what you're passionate about improving in the world. I'm deeply passionate about developing countries in Africa and about providing villages there with water and new forms of economic stimulation, so I recently started giving to charities like Give Directly.

3. Give locally.

We walk past people in need every day. Give a homeless man, woman, or family a warm meal by replating your leftovers.

Start a replate movement in your city. Replating is anonymously dropping off leftovers on top of garbage bins all over the city for those in need of a meal. San Francisco is already home to the replate movement.

4. Get your friends and family involved.

Set up a campaign and ask your friends and family to donate to your cause. I've set up a Charity: Water Campaign for this holiday season, and have started asking my friends and family to donate, in lieu of sending me gifts. Charity: Water is "a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations."

What if I don't have any money? Donate your time.

There are opportunities in your city where you can donate your time to organizations that need help. Volunteer at your local food bank, like the SF Food Bank, which depends on volunteers like you and me to stay open for families in need. Or, volunteer to become a mentor at an organization like YearUp. Here's a list of tech-specific organizations that could probably use your help.

If you're a coder, sign up for Code Montage and get some open source and development experience while donating your time to working on technical projects related directly to social change.

Mentor someone you know. Offer your time to marginalized people in the tech community, for free. An awesome example of this is Jen Myers's speaking office hours.

5. Get your company involved.

Ask the company you work for if they'll match donations to charitable causes. Lobby for a match program like Brightfunds.

6. Go.

Inspired by my recent trip exploring the East African tech scene, this step is my own, but it's also one I deeply believe can have an impact.

Showing up in a developing country isn't always the answer. In fact, sometimes it can hurt more than it helps. Exposing yourself to the ways the rest of the world is living, however, can change your perspective, encourage you to give more responsibly, and inspire you to live more sustainably.

Don't be a missionary. Do not treat people in developing countries any other way than you would your coworkers, friends, and family. It shouldn't have to be said, but people are people, regardless of where they make their homes or what they believe in. They do not need you. You're a guest, a student.

Get to know people individually. Have conversations with women and men you would have never met under other circumstances. Have a beer. Tell stories. Shake hands. Laugh. Smile at people you pass on the street.

Understanding the way people live and the problems which are specific to their infrastructures, governments, communities, and cultures will help you to better understand how you can help.

If you really bond with people, their struggles start to feel more like your own. The world could use more understanding and more empathy.

Accessibility is already starting to shape the world. The Internet has changed who can access information and where we can access it from. If there's anything we can give or teach to the developing world it's making resources more readily available, as well as making access to those resources more reliable and less expensive. Go to a developing country and volunteer to teach at a school or co-working space.

Now is the right time to get well.

As important as it is to give well, now is just as good of a time to focus on getting well. Personal wellness is something of a taboo subject in our community, and people with mental illnesses are often looked at as defective, not unwell. But more people suffer from depression and anxiety disorders than you probably think. Tech specifically can be a fast-paced, competitive, and demanding industry to work in. We work long hours, sometimes upwards of 15 hour shifts. We deal with difficult people. Our social and work lives almost always overlap. It's like we never really leave work. And it's more stressful and harmful than most of us are willing to admit.

Instead we joke that someone who lashes out at work is "bipolar," we poke fun at our more sensitive peers, and we drink to cope with the high intensity of our jobs.

The more stress that enters into our lives and our jobs, the more we tell ourselves we're smart, that stress is just another problem to solve, and that we can figure out how to handle these things on our own. That they're manageable.

I've now witnessed two former coworkers, both of whom I care deeply about, suffer from serious mental illness and I watched them suffer in silence until they both had breakdowns that would eventually lead to them losing friends, supporters, and eventually the jobs they loved so much and sacrificed so much of their personal health for.

Everyone should see a therapist.

There's no shame in asking for help. Therapists are not only for "sick people." Therapists aren't just pseudo-sciency strangers with legal pads and head nods. Therapists can provide relief. They're objective parties whom you can unload on. They can give you practical formulas for approaching human-type problems or obstacles in your life. They can teach you to be more mindful.

Every time I get a cold, I never realize quite how sick I am until it clears up. Depression can often feel the same way. Some of us don't know or realize how depressed we really are or what unhealthy things we're using to cope until we ask for help and start to heal. We can all get better. Rich, poor, women, men, senior, junior, young, old; we can all get a lot better, healthier.