Americans have a funny relationship to the notion of wealth: we’re brought up to aspire to wealth, but then we rarely acknowledge it when we have it.
For example, I don’t know many early retirees or financially independent people who see themselves as rich, even though they are the very definition of it, perhaps even more so than those we traditionally think of as “the rich,” because they are flush with both money and time.
That matters because many of us are trained see philanthropy as something the wealthy do. But that’s us! The early retirement movement has the potential to be the epicenter of giving back and making our communities better. We just have to make that a core focus. (Not to mention that some of our richest people give almost nothing. So we can’t rely on the super wealthy anyway.)
And while I’m a huge believer in the importance of charitable giving, there are plenty of ways to make a difference without having to shell out lots of money — especially when you have time on your hands, as many work-optional people do. (Of course, if you’re also game to donate money, here’s a post on donor advised funds, which I highly recommend.)
Let’s talk about what those ways are.
Donate your skillz — If you’ve managed to save for early retirement in some form, chances are good you’ve built up some useful career skills. Can you run an event? Keep an organization’s books? Build things? Offer legal services? Upgrade a website? All of those skills are useful to nonprofit organizations who’d otherwise have to pay someone to do those things, and if you can offer to donate them, you’ll be offering tremendous value. While volunteering to staff a food distribution line for homeless people or walking dogs at the animal shelter are good things to do, you make the biggest impact by contributing the skills that not just anyone could do — and that would cost them more to pay for. And all the better if you can do it consistently. One of my top career skills is staying calm when nobody else is, especially when things get frantic, so I manage a high-stress component of our local animal shelter’s annual fundraising gala, and I’ve done it for several years now. In addition to keeping a stressful thing off the staff’s plates, my involvement also keeps them from feeling stressed in the lead-up, because they don’t have to worry that things won’t go smoothly, and saves them the time of recruiting and training new people to help each year.
Be thoughtful when you declutter — Marie Kondo’s new show on Netflix, Tidying Up, has a lot of people revisiting their home clutter, and while I’m all for simplifying, it kills me to see all the things families get rid of end up in trash bags. It’s old news to donate that stuff instead, but you can go a step farther by doing a little bit of research to ensure that the things you get rid of go to the best possible home (instead of to the landfill, where most donated clothing actually ends up). For example, if you have suits or work clothes to declutter, especially after leaving a career, rather than donate them along with everything else to Goodwill, could you find a local organization who gives them to career-seekers in need? Dress for Success is one such organization focusing on women specifically, but there are several others. If you have office supplies to get rid of, could you drop them off at a local school for the teachers and students to use? If you have tools, could you find out if Habitat For Humanity‘s local chapter could put them to good use in home-building projects? Can you ask if your local optometry office accepts old glasses for people in need? (Most do.) There are an infinite number of solutions, so get creative.
Related post: The Use It Up Challenge, and Our Nothing New Year
Give blood and platelets, and register for marrow — If you are healthy, you’re constantly producing good stuff within your circulatory system that can help lots of others. You can give blood every eight weeks, and if you’re not squeamish about needles, you can donate platelets even more often. Platelet donation takes quite a bit longer than regular blood donation (1-2 hours), because you are hooked up to a machine that takes out blood a little at a time and separates out the platelets and plasma before returning the red cells back to you. Here’s more info about how it works. Platelets are critical to many cancer patients, those with bleeding disorders, trauma victims and transplant patients, and because it takes a lot of time, there aren’t a whole lot of people donating them. But if you have the time, it’s an incredible way to help others. (Plus, when you donate, they wrap you up in lots of warm blankets, bring you snacks and let you pick whatever movie you want to watch. It’s pretty sweet.) While you’re at it, donating either blood or platelets, ask to be added to one of the national bone marrow registries — or you can register yourself directly with one like Be The Match. Your odds of ever matching to someone are low, but you might one day be in a position to save someone’s life.
Shop in ways that give back — None of us here are super pro-shopping, but we must all buy things sometimes. For those things, explore whether you could buy them in ways that make a positive contribution. For example, when shopping on Amazon, if you click through Amazon Smile instead, you can select any nonprofit organization to get a small cut of every purchase without it affecting your price. And consider shopping with brands that use a “buy one, give one” model with their products.
Pay people what they’re worth — We don’t have to rely on charitable activities to make a positive difference in the lives of others. We can do it every single day, in every financial interaction. Maybe it’s committing to tipping well. Perhaps it’s not haggling too hard with a contractor for work you need done on your home, especially if you know they do top-quality work. Maybe, if you’re still working, it’s advocating for others to get raises, or for interns to get paid in the first place. Paying people what they’re worth costs us little in any given interaction, but reduces the need for all the rest of this charitable stuff all the way down the line.
Give out of a donor advised fund (DAF) — My very favorite thing about having a DAF is that once we’ve put the money in there, charitable giving is “free.” That is, we don’t have to come up with money or wonder how much is in checking at the moment — we just send grants out from the DAF. It’s a bit like magic, honestly. Any perceived pain of initially funding the DAF is long gone, and now it’s just awesome to be able to give money to worthy organizations without it costing us a thing. Several times last year, I was at fundraising events, and when the time came for the hard sell, I could just click over the Fidelity Charitable site, look up the organization, pick an amount and click confirm. If you’re on the fence about whether to open a donor advised fund, I really can’t recommend it strongly enough. We love knowing that we’ll always be able to give, even if we earn no additional money and the budget is tight.
I’d love to hear from you, because I have no doubt that you can add to this list. What are some other easy or low-cost ways to give back or improve your community? (Easy isn’t a prerequisite, because the goal is to have more time, after all.) What are some ways that you give back now that you’d recommend others try?