"What can I do?"
Amid what seems like a rising international tide of anger and bigotry, this question is on many minds. But it's also just a handful of words, one so small you could tuck it in a coat pocket and forget about until next year, when the holiday season rolls around again.
"There's no question, the goodwill meter goes off the charts around December," says Nick Saul, president of Community Food Centres Canada. "It's a good impulse. Volunteering is an expression of being connected to one another and it's an important impulse to nurture."
Still, that good impulse does come with pitfalls. Many of us aren't yet part of a social infrastructure that helps incorporate volunteering into the fabric of life.
Those who belong to a church, mosque, temple or synagogue can wait for the pastor, imam, prayer leader or rabbi to designate three people to sort cans, and then the good deed gets done. But if free agents don't act quickly, December's positive motivations can dissipate in January as quickly as the desire to exercise.
Between the world going to heck and Christmas and Hanukkah falling on the same week this year, we're currently facing a perfect storm of volunteer interest. Rather than being defeated by goals that are too large, use these tips to make the most of this year's good intentions.
1. Think long-term
The organization Volunteer Toronto also sees a rise in calls at the end of the year. The problem is that interested parties are often a bit too specific about when and how they're willing to participate.
"It is often disappointing for them when they can't find that perfect opportunity," says Ainsley Kendrick, communications manager. "Before you reach out, spend time researching and considering how you can best contribute your skills over a longer period of time."
The problems that exist now will, sadly, also exist in 2017.
2. Don't call
"Because most NGOs are about goodwill, it's hard to say no," Saul says. "If you start randomly calling, you're going to put some organizations in a pickle. It can be disruptive." Most organizations just don't have the staff to deal with volunteer requests over the phone. Instead, book an appointment online at Volunteer Toronto to meet with a referral counsellor, who can guide you to discover and narrow down what it is that you're interested in doing as a volunteer. Volunteer Canada has links to local organizations across the country, from Squamish, B.C., to Kentville, N.S.
3. Figure out what you care about
"Think very carefully about what fires you up," Saul says.
"Is it youth? Food? Single moms? Disability? The environment? Because that'll make you stick with something far better than saying, 'It's that time of year.' "
4. Stay close to home
As with therapy or exercise, if your volunteer placement is too difficult to get to, you'll find excuses not to go. It took me less than 10 minutes on the Volunteer Toronto site to find a food-related volunteer opportunity within a 10-minute walk of my home.
"If they can't find something in their community on our website, go out and look for it," Kendrick says. "There might be a community centre or organization close by."
5. Don't replicate your 9 to 5. Or maybe do
If your day job has you constantly making mental decisions, think about a volunteer position that is more physical. "You may want to do front-line work, serving a meal, cleaning, sweeping, giving your mind a bit of a break," Saul says.
Then again, it might be appealing to put your well-honed skills to use. Every good cause needs fundraisers, administrators and board members, especially those who do the jobs well.
6. Don't overcommit
That, Saul says, is the worst thing you can possibly do. "Ultimately, what organizations are looking for is not the short-term but consistently volunteering on a regular basis," he says.
"So you need to be really clear in your own mind, before you start looking for opportunities, what you feel you can give. And then build from there." Knowing that you have one free night a month is better than thinking you have one free night a week, then bailing.
7. Be careful about kids
Some parents look for an avenue to show their children "how the other side lives"; a noble impulse, but not all volunteer opportunities are appropriate. Some environments are unsafe for kids, while other programs have age minimums.
Again, Volunteer Toronto has a list of places that are family-friendly.
There's the new family-to-family mentoring program at the Yonge Street Mission, which works with people in poverty, or holiday gift-wrapping with StepStones, which provides programs for at-risk youth.
8. Join a campaign
If what you want to do is effect greater structural change, fear not. There is a political campaign near you – local, provincial, federal – looking for volunteers.
To get involved in the political process in a non-partisan way, consider grassroots organizations such as Women in Toronto Politics (which aims to amplify women's voices in politics), or Unlock Democracy, which promotes electoral reform. If these suggestions don't suit you, use this article to find one that does.
9. Don't judge others
In an otherwise forgettable movie (Eureka), Gene Hackman had a line that's stuck with me for decades: "There's only one rule. The golden rule. Everything else is conversation."
If the world is to be pulled back from the edge of darkness, it will only be because good people gave up small portions of their free time.
But you don't like to be lectured, so don't lecture others. It's unlikely to convince them to wake up early on Saturdays to join you.
Instead, lead by example. Only a fool thinks he can solve the world's problems. But everyone is capable, in their own way, of making it a better place.