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5 Ways to Give Back When You’re Short on Cash

ways to give backWinston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

Study after study has shown that Winston Churchill was right. Giving to charity makes us happier and healthier. However, between paying rent, buying groceries, and trying to put a bit back for retirement, it can often feel like there’s not a lot of extra money in the budget. If you feel like your budget is stretched too thin to give much money, there are many other ways to give back. Consider these five ways to contribute to your community even when you’re short on cash.

1) Volunteer Your Time

For many non-profits, your time is needed just as much as your money. One great way to give back is to act as a mentor. You can mentor a member of the community directly, as with organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. You can also use your skills to help guide the nonprofit itself. Nonprofits often desperately need help with business skills like personnel management, marketing, and information technology. Take the Full Circle Fund of San Francisco as an example. It’s an active network of business professionals leveraging their time, talent, and connections to create change in their community.

If you aren’t sure how you’d like to contribute, there are many excellent resources to help you find a good match. Check out sites like Idealist and Omprakash to find an organization that’s a good fit for you. There are sites like VolunteerMatch and Catchafire that can help connect you to initiatives that can benefit from your skills.

2) Give Back from Home

Perhaps you’d like to give back, but you find it difficult to get out of the house. If so, you’re in luck. There are plenty of ways to give back from home. With the VolunteerGuide, you can volunteer anywhere, anytime, for as little as fifteen minutes at a time. The UNV Online Volunteering service also connect online volunteers with appropriate nonprofits.

There are also plenty of passive ways to give back as you browse on the Internet. There’s Amazon Smile, which will donate 0.5% of the price of goods bought on Amazon to the charitable organization of your choice. GoodSearch will donate a penny for every search you complete through their search engine. You can also click once per day for additional causes through Care2, which uses advertiser money to find organizations like Children International. There’s also the vocabulary game Free Rice. Donate 10 grains of rice to the World Food Program for each correct answer. It’s funded by advertiser dollars, so it’s free to you.

3) Clean Up for a Cause

We all have a few things around the house that we no longer use. Instead of letting the clutter pile up around the house, send the extra items off to a family in need.

If you live near a Goodwill or Salvation Army, that’s always a great place to send the extra stuff. Other charities can use specific items. See the list below for ideas:

Cell Phone & Electronics: 911 Cell Phone Bank, Cell Phones for Soldiers, Recycling for Charities
Eyeglasses: Lions Club International, OneSight, New Eyes for the Needy
Dress Clothes: Dress for Success
Car: Ideas here
Furniture: National Furniture Bank, Donation Town

ways to give back4) Donate Yourself

While money, time, and extra items around the house are the most common ways to donate, one of the most personal ways to give back is to give a bit of yourself to someone in need. If you’re in good health, giving blood or plasma is a great way to help others without spending a penny. You can also be tested as a bone marrow donor through Be the Match.

If you don’t like needles, there are other ways to give a bit of yourself. Nursing moms can donate breast milk to the National Milk Bank, which helps premature and critically ill babies. You can also donate your hair to Locks of Love. Locks of Love uses donated hair to make custom wigs for children who have lost their hair due to medical reasons like alopecia or cancer treatment.

5) Give With Friends

One of the most rewarding ways to give back is to give with friends. Not only will you help others, but you’ll strengthen your own community ties as well.

You can join a “giving circle” – a group of volunteers that raises money or donates time together. You can check out the Giving Circle Network to find a group that’s a good fit for you.

One of the best examples of this is the group Dining for Women. It was started by Marsha Wallace, a mother of four in Greenville, South Carolina, in January 2003. As a busy mom, she wanted to give back but didn’t have much time. Her idea? She would hold a monthly potluck dinner with friends in one of their homes. They would all use the money they would have otherwise spent at a restaurant to donate to a charity. If you’re able to find a bit of money to eat out once a month, you’ll be able to do something like this!

There are now many social organizations that have emerged to help others through hosting dinners and social events. For men, look into Beers for Books. You could also just donate the poker winnings at the end of game night.

Make the Most of Your Donation

Any time you give a bit of your time or money, why not take a little bit of extra time to make sure the impact is as large as possible? Perhaps your company has a policy of matching employee donations. If they do, your $1 is now $2.

If you give money or physical items, make sure you save receipts to claim your donations on your taxes. For cash contributions, you’ll need a receipt for contributions above $250. Clothing, furniture, and other items are deductible as long as you have a receipt with what you gave and the estimated value. You can also deduct mileage related to charitable work, but you’ll have to keep a log of where you went and when.

And of course, if you are giving back, you’ll want to make sure the charity is using your time and money wisely. You can check out a prospective organization on Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, or GuideStar/Philanthropedia. You can take a look at the organization’s IRS Form 990 and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance to make sure the organization is legitimate.

Watch out for charities that adopt a name similar to a well-known organization to piggyback on its reputation. However, don’t obsess too much on the percentages of revenues spent on administration and fund-raising. Charities that invest in employees, training, and marketing might have higher expenses but might have a larger impact, too.

You can also donate to charities that are dedicated to interventions with rigorous scientific backing. The Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy has a wonderful website listing effective interventions from randomized controlled trials. The organization GiveWell is also dedicated to evaluating charities to make sure that our altruism is effective.

How do you give back to your community?

This post has been written by Jenna, our new staff writer who hails from Be sure to leave her a comment below!



My name is Derek, and I have my Bachelors Degree in Finance from Grand Valley State University. After graduation, I was not able to find a job that fully utilized my degree, but I still had a passion for Finance! So, I decided to focus my passion in the stock market. I studied Cash Flows, Balance Sheets, and Income Statements, put some money into the market and saw a good return on my investment. As satisfying as this was, I still felt that something was missing. I have a passion for Finance, but I also have a passion for people. If you have a willingness to learn, I will continue to teach.


  1. Sometimes I find that one way to give to my community is by being a go-between… I guess it falls under the category of “giving time”. But, I have found several organizations in town that need say bicycles or women’s work clothes, and often I think people want to donate but don’t know how, so I’ll try to be the go between by advertising in my community that I am collecting say, old damaged bicycles and they can drop them of at my house, and then I can take them all in. It makes the job of donating stuff easier for other people, just by me using my time to organize the community.

    • That’s a wonderful idea! By being the go-between, you can help others give as well. If you were going to go ahead at drop the items off anyways, it’s not too time consuming to bring some extras in at the same time.

  2. I’m anxiously trying to increase my milk supply so that I can donate to the local milk bank. I had lots of leftovers with Mini #1, so I’m excited to share some from Mini #2. Now then, it’s time for me to go drink some more water…

    • That’s wonderful! Nothing better than helping itty bitty babies.

  3. This is great info, Jenna! Many times actually reaching out and lending a hand is so much more powerful than just giving money to a non-profit and not knowing the first-hand impact it has. Thanks for the great article!

    • Thanks Derek! It’s really nice to be able to see the impact when you give back through volunteering.

  4. I love volunteering my time. No charity I have ever come across has never not needed more help. It feels great to help out and give back.

    • It’s a win/win — they need the help, and it feels good to give back.

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