If you’re checking out this blog, chances are you’re probably an avid volunteer – or at least looking to become one.

There’s surely no shortage of opportunities to do so.  In fact, it’s the overwhelming abundance of people and organizations in need that can make finding the volunteer opportunity that suits you more daunting than it should be.

That’s where VolunteerMatch comes in.

The site, which has been referring volunteers since 1998, matches you with opportunities by your location (city, state or ZIP), and a few keywords of what you’re interested in (i.e., environment, children).

This two-pronged search format can 1) if you know what position you want, eliminate the frustration of not being able to locate one of that type in your area, or 2) if you have a set location you want to work from, expand your potential positions by providing everything available in that area.

And, if you’re unable to volunteer regularly in person, VolunteerMatch’s homepage has a “Virtual Opportunities” section to find something that can be done from home or over the internet.

If you already work for a nonprofit, you can register to use VolunteerMatch as a recruiting tool.

You can also make a monetary donation to keep VolunteerMatch running strong.

I admit it, I’m a book junkie.

The bookshelves at my apartment are crammed full.  The desk is piled high.  Novels open to various pages are stacked on top of my nightstand.

I can’t imagine not being able to have them.

So, when I stumbled upon this list of nonprofits that provide books to underprivileged populations and areas, I decided to do some investigating.

If you have some extra copies in good condition lying around, consider donating to any one of these initiatives.

1. Name: Books for America
Mission: Promote literacy and “life-long learning” by distributing books and educational materials to organizations.
Serves: People of all ages.  Recipients include adult and youth literacy programs, youth centers, homeless shelters, hospitals, inner-city and rural schools, military bases, assisted living communities for seniors, veterans’ hospitals, women’s shelters, and hospices.
How to help: Donate books, have a book drive, volunteer.

2. Name: Bring Me  a Book
Mission: Provide easy access to new, multicultural, quality hardcover children’s books in multiple languages.
Serves:Underserved preschools, elementary schools, after-school programs, shelters, community centers, and businesses both in the U.S. and in foreign countries.
How to help: Donate.

3. Name: Reach Out and Read
Mission: Promote literacy as a standard part of pediatric primary care; train doctors and nurses to advise parents about the importance of reading aloud and to give books to children at pediatric checkups from 6 months to 5 years old.
Serves: Clinics throughout the U.S.
How to help: Donate books, make a monetary donation, volunteer.


In the U.S., a couple hundred dollars might not buy much more than a pair of designer jeans.

In a developing country, it could be enough to permanently lift someone out of poverty.

Kiva is a micro-lending organization created with this idea in mind.  Its self-proclaimed goal is just that: “connect people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty.”

Kiva allows lenders to browse profiles of budding entrepreneurs, whose qualifications are verified by Kiva’s partnering microfinance institutions, before choosing recipients for their loans.

Lenders can also sort profiles by gender, country, etc., if there is a specific group or region they’d like to support.

After making an immediate loan through the site, lenders can choose to receive email journal updates and track repayments.  Kiva also maintains a blog.

Once repaid – and Kiva has an incredibly high repayment rate – the funds can be loaned to someone new.

Every time I visit Kiva’s site, I marvel at how such a simple idea is bringing about such steady change, literally one person at a time.

What you can do:

It’s simple: according to the U.N., the global population could be as high as 11 billion in 2050 or as low as 8 billion, depending on what programs are put in place now.

This might be one case where we don’t want to aim high.

Population Connection, formerly Zero Population Growth, is one organization trying to keep that projection low.  It advocates for stabilizing the world’s population at a level sustainable by Earth’s resources.

Population Connection divides its initiative into three key goals:

  1. Protecting the planet, as, according to the organization, “population growth stretches natural resources to their limites.”  Millions of people born each year intensify negative effects on the environment, such as food and water shortages and pollution.
  2. Ensuring social justice, since larger populations make disease control and poverty reduction increasingly difficult to achieve.
  3. Defending women’s rights by supporting programs that sponsor family planning education and access to contraception for women, so that women may have a say in their own childbearing decisions.

Improvement in any of these areas could have profound effects on population stabilization.

Courtesy of Population Connection.

Courtesy of Population Connection.

How to get involved:

“We don’t have millions of dollars or celebrity status, but we do have a Vespa.”

With that simple notion, Tim and Ali Lowry began a 2,286- mile  summer adventure to raise awareness and funding for Hydromissions International, a water ministry that serves third-world countries.

The Lowrys’ mission – named, appropriately, 2 Wheels 4 Water – caught my eye, mostly because they took it upon themselves without prodding from anyone else. Their work was self-driven, and it was genuine.

Their mission: “Save gas. End thirst.”

Their plan:

  1. Use scooters, which cost about 14 cents less  per mile to drive than regular cars, to travel the Carolinas.
  2. Ask for donations/pledges in the amount of that 14-cents-a-mile difference.
  3. Accept any donations, whether they were more of less than the suggested amount.
  4. Pass the money to Hydromissions.
The Lowrys' route.

The Lowrys' route.

In  summer of 2008, the Lowrys carried out their trip, contacting sponsors, designing their route, sweating through a 90-degree heat wave, doing radio interviews, appearing in newspapers, and even passing 2 Wheels 4 Water cards off to toll booth operators to get the word out.

None of the money raised was pocketed or put toward gas.  Every bit of it went directly to Hydromissions, as promised.

Here’s more on how they did it.

Activism: In Watercolor

April 21, 2009

Ashley Cecil calls herself a “painting activist.”

She is one of the most creative social advocates I have stumbled upon.

Her approach is simple.

  1. Love art. Study art formally and work with it professionally.
  2. Travel to different locations in pursuit of “events of cultural interest.”
  3. Capture them, not with a camera, but with watercolors, oil paints, pastels..
  4. Sell the artwork.
  5. Donate a portion of the proceeds to the nonprofit corresponding to the piece.

The result is, as she says, a “marriage of painting and social activism.”

I find the concept almost as beautiful as the art.

Print of an Ashley Cecil original.

Print of an Ashley Cecil original.

When I think of the familiar “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra, I think tin cans and water bottles…not bicycles.

Luckily, Allison Karow’s thinking isn’t as old-fashioned as mine.

Two and a half years ago, Karow started Bike Saviours out of a Tempe, AZ backyard. The non-profit serves as a(n):

  • bicycle shop that provides low-priced used bicycles and bike parts, as well as affordable repairs
  • “community recycling project” that turns donated bicycle parts into functional bicycles and looks for additional ways to reuse scrapped parts
  • “bike library” for people who need a bicycle only temporarily
  • education center that teaches people about riding safety, Arizona bicycle laws, and bicycle maintenance

Karow had worked at a similar organization in Oakland, and implemented the concept when she moved to Arizona.



A bike built by Bicycle Saviours, courtesy of the organization.

A bike built by Bicycle Saviours, courtesy of the organization.




I interviewed Heather Hoch, who has been with Bike Saviours since 2007, to see why she’s stuck with the organization thus far and what you can do to help.

Why did you get involved with Bike Saviours?
HH: I became interested in the organization after my friends began teaching me about bicycle mechanics. The bicycle represents a lot of things to me: a sustainable and efficient mode of transportation, a way to stay healthy, and a social experience.

What have you gotten out of your work with the organization?
HH: Bike Saviours is the only place I’ve ever worked where I could directly see the benefits I was bringing to the community. I’ve helped people fix a bike that carried their entire lives, and I did it absolutely free. Money is such a small issue in the shop, so it’s really refreshing to go there at the end of the week and just help out.

Do you accept donations?
HH: We love donations! Anyone with bike parts/tools lying around can drop by the shop on Sunday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. and donate them. We have an online wishlist detailing specific needs. We also accept cash donations.

What are some other ways to help?
HH: We’re also always looking for more volunteers to work in the shop. The more volunteers we have, the more days we can stay open, and the more people we can help. (Volunteers are required to takea  free 8-week bike mechanics course taught at the shop on Monday nights.)

Anything else readers should know?
HH: We want to save your bike!
Contact Heather or visit the shop on Sundays to find out more.

I’ve always thought “trickle-down economics” was a nice idea, albeit an unlikely one.

Apparently Glen and Mildred Robbins Leet agreed with me.


The Leets were “frustrated that huge sums of money allocated to top levels of society never reached the world’s poorest,” according to the website for Trickle Up, the organization they founded in 1979.  They decided to turn the tables on the decade’s popular philosophy and founded Trickle Up in response to global poverty. 


Trickle Up works primarily with the “extreme poor” – those living on less than $1 a day and unable to get a microloan – and helps them to launch “microenterprises” (very small businesses with limited profits).


The organization currently starts or expands a startling 10,000+ businesses each year globally.

An African family sponsored by previous Trickle Up campaign. (C) Trickle Up.

An African family sponsored by previous Trickle Up campaign. (C) Trickle Up.


How Trickle Up Does It:


Step 1: The organization identifies a participant by working with local organizations active in the regions where it has a presence.  Trickle Up has more than 50 of these partners in addition to field offices throughout Asia, Central America, and East and West Africa.


Step 2: Staff help the participant create a business plan, i.e. identification of product/service, location of demand, and projected costs/profit.  Plans have been translated into 30+ languages, but the majority of participants are illiterate.  Plans that use pictures to illustrate business concepts were designed to cater to those participants. 


Step 3: The participant is also trained in business functions.


Step 4: The first half of a (roughly $100) grant is released, which covers launch costs (rental of a facility, initial supplies, etc.)


Step 5: After three months, Trickle Up assesses the business in terms of growth, potential success, and proper management.  Trickle Up staff visit and speak directly with participants.  If a business is developing successfully, the second part of the grant is released.  This allows the participant to grow his/her businesses further, and the three month lag time before the release of the second installment allows him/her to develop a sense of what purchases would be most beneficial. 


Step 6: Trickle Up sets up group savings organizations and encourages participants, who were previously “living hand-to-mouth,” to save for emergencies or future expenses.


Step 7: Staff continues to provide ongoing support to successful entrepreneurs, i.e. microcredit.



Trickle Up reports that, after the first year, about 90 percent of businesses continue functioning, while over 80 percent of them expand.



What You Can Do:

1. Donate online, by phone, or by mail.  Donations start at $5, and 78% goes directly to services.
2. Give stocks, bonds, or other assets
3. Establish a fund in someone’s honor.
4. Register a special occasion with the site, and ask for donations in lieu of gifts.




Click to read stories from actual participants.


No one understands students like students.

That’s why I’m a big fan of Schools for Schools, a program run through Invisible Children, an organization that seeks to raise money and awareness to help end the longest-running war in Africa (in northern Uganda). The program partners schools in other parts of Uganda with a school in the war-torn North that badly needs rebuilding.


Children at a Ugandan school.

Children at a Ugandan school.

I spoke with Alli Coritz, an active member in Invisible Children and Schools for Schools, to see what her work is all about.

What spurred the creation of Invisible Children?
Alli Coritz: Invisible Children started when three guys in their early 20s decided to go to Africa, hoping they’d stumble upon an interesting story to film. What they found were millions of people in displaced camps in horrible conditions. What really got them motivated was the plight of the children; in order to avoid being forced to be child soldiers, children walked miles each morning and night into the town centers to sleep en masse with a few armed guards to avoid getting kidnapped. When these three men got back to the United States, they decided to do something to raise awareness about the situation.

How did Schools for Schools start?
AC: Schools for Schools began as a way to motivate the youth in Uganda in a friendly competition to raise money to help fund their peers’ educations.

I’m interested in helping Schools for Schools. What are my options?
1. Attend meetings at Arizona State University Tuesdays at 5 p.m.
2. Join the Facebook group in order to find out what events are going on around campus.
3. Join the mailing list at s4sasu@gmail.com.
4. Make a monetary donation.
5. Bring used textbooks to the fall semester book drive.
6. Donate electronics you no longer need to a drive also held during fall semester.

What have you gotten out of working with Schools for Schools?
AC: Not only did participation in Schools for Schools broaden my knowledge of what’s occurring outside of the U.S., I also have a real sense of accomplishment. I know that I am helping people around my own age achieve what is so easily handed to us here – an education.


*If you like this organization, you might also be interested in working with: The Central Asia Institute, a non-profit that helps build schools, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The path to the creation of the CAI is detailed in the bestseller Three Cups of Tea.

A nonprofit whose efforts I’ve followed for some time now is COAR (Community Outreach & Advocacy for Refugees), an organization that seeks to assist refugees resettling in the U.S. in becoming self-reliant and comfortable in their new lives and relies largely on volunteers to do so.  COAR started out as a student organization and has ballooned to a dedicated nonprofit.  They work for “awareness and advocacy” of the refugee situation, sponsoring tutoring for refugee students, helping refugees make higher education a reality, and other youth leadership programs.

While, as I said, I was already familiar with this organization and its goals, its new Volunteer Anchor Program just caught my eye and struck me as a highly unique volunteer opportunity.  Volunteer anchors are paired together and work with a recently resettled family of refugees and essentially help them adjust.  This may include anything from helping with homework, job applications, and basic English skills to getting groceries and giving directions.   While these tasks may seem mundane to us, they can be daunting to someone unfamiliar with them.  The stability that would come with refugees’ self-sufficiency and ability to communicate would surely make a significant difference for someone whose life had previously been turned upside-down.

Spring 2009 applications to be an anchor are due February 13 and can be completed online after creating a COAR account.  While I know this is right around the corner, the application is not very extensive and, while it does request references, does not require any supplementary letters of recommendation, transcripts, etc.  If you cannot make this application deadline, it is my understanding that another round of applications will be accepted soon.

After being accepted, volunteer anchors will attend an orientation and be placed with a family soon after.  Volunteer anchors should be familiar with their schedule before coming to orientation as they will need to be prepared to sign up for a time slot to meet the family with whom they will be working.  At this initial meeting, a translator will be present in addition to COAR/resettlement agency representatives who will help make the introduction smooth.

Contact Wendy Zupac at wzupac@coarweb.org with any questions about the program.

Email admin@coarweb.org with any technical problems using the COAR site.