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5 ways you can give back to your community (even under lockdown)

Something I’m working to do more of this year is contribute more to my local community and those with less. If 2020 taught me anything, it was that local resilient communities are so important for those that live in them, and the support networks that a good community can offer are priceless.

The other lesson was that, no matter how hard you think you’ve got it, someone else has got it worse, and almost all of us have privilege that we can use to benefit those with less.

(Privilege, incidentally, doesn’t just mean the more obvious things like time or money or power. It can mean white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, mental health privilege, and so on. We might not have them all, but even having one or two makes life easier for us than those who lack them.)

What this ‘contributing’ looks like will vary from person to person – it depends on our privilege, after all. But there are lots of ways we can benefit others and support our community. It doesn’t need to be big or grandiose. Small actions are just as important.

Something so small it only makes a difference to one person still makes a difference to that person.

Here are five ways I’m trying to give back to my community, and contribute more.

Picking up litter

It might seem small, but litter (or lack of it) has such an impact on a community. Rubbish strewn across a park or in waterways is unsightly and harms wildlife but it also gives the impression that no-one cares about the area. And if somewhere is already covered in trash, it almost gives the go-ahead for more trash to be added.

If you want to instantly improve your local community, commit to picking up litter.

It might be that you just try to pick up three items every time you leave the house. Or you might join an organised clean-up event once a month, or even just once a year, where you collect rubbish as part of a group. Or you might decide to ‘adopt a spot’ and keep that one area trash-free.

In Western Australia our container deposit scheme launched at the end of 2020. This means most beverage containers can be returned to receive a 10c refund. Whenever I’m out on my bike, I pledge to pick up every container I see. I’d say on most trips I find 2-3 containers. The funds are going towards a community replanting project in the local area.

And yes, I feel guilty about all the other litter I see and leave when I’m out on my bike. But the reality is, if I stopped to pick up everything, I’d never reach my destination. So I focus on the containers (which is more than I used to do) and accept that I can’t do everything.

In March every year there is a national ‘Clean Up Australia Day’ event. So this year I got together with some like-minded neighbours and we organised a Clean Up Carlisle event, picking up litter along the train line. It’s the first time I’ve ever organised a clean-up like this myself – so it was pretty exciting that people outside of our group turned up!

When I was talking to my neighbours about the event afterwards, they were annoyed that we hadn’t decided to choose one of the main roads in the area, which also has a litter problem. And so I suggested another event, to come soon. When people take pride in their community, these things start to happen…

Donating what you no longer need

I’m a huge fan of donating stuff we no longer need – or more accurately, finding new owners and homes for our old things. It’s one of the things I talk about in a lot of detail in my book Less Stuff.

I have mixed feelings about donating to the charity shop. Too many people use charity shops as a dumping ground for stuff they feel guilty about throwing away. Charity shops are overwhelmed with stuff, only selling about 15% of everything that gets donated.

If you’re going to donate to the charity shop, ensure it’s your best stuff, its clean and not broken, and it’s appropriate for the time of year (charity shops don’t want Christmas decorations in January, or ski ware in summer). You can even call before you drop off to check it’s stuff they actually need right now.

Charity shops are an easier option, but there are lots of other places to donate items to people who need them.

Try your local Buy Nothing group.

Ask on a local community Facebook group for ideas of local places to drop things off (such as homeless shelters or refuges, community projects, schools or playgroups).

If you have excess food (even if it’s open or past its expiry) try Olio. They’ve recently expanded into non-food items, too.

Givit is an online Australian platform which lists items needed by individuals or organisations.

Supporting a local food bank

Food banks often have specific needs and won’t accept items that are open or past their use-by (use Olio for these things). You might have items in your cupboard to donate, or you might decide to make a donation by buying extra groceries.

I found a local food bank run by church just two streets away from me, and I started the habit of making a monthly donation box at the end of last year. Being local I like that it benefits people in my area. Every time I got to the shops I’ll buy a few things to add to the box, and then once a month I make a delivery.

It felt strange to me to buy items in packaging at first, but I feel better about supporting the food bank than I would if I avoided the groceries and didn’t contribute. I still try to keep to my values where I can – buying Fairtrade coffee and locally grown tinned vegetables.

Something else I’ve been able to do, and this might work for you if you don’t have the budget to contribute financially, is take food that’s been offered up on the Buy Nothing group to the food bank on behalf of others.

(The drop off hours are quite specific, being Wednesday and Friday mornings only, so not everyone can get there. I have flexible working hours and can pick things up and drop them off.)

I want to add, that the very fact that food banks need to exist at all is quite outrageous. In a world where 1/3 of all food grown is thrown away, the fact that millions of people go hungry in countries like the UK, Australia and the USA (so called ‘developed’ countries) every day is quite unbelievable.

Our food system is in crisis, and there is a lot of work to be done by corporations and governments to stop allowing this waste on this scale and to redistribute resources more fairly. In the meantime, people need to eat and donating to food banks is one way to share our resources with others.

Making a monetary donation

The obvious one, possibly. But making monetary donations to organizations you believe in and/or whose work you value – whether it’s a regular donation or a one-off, whether it’s a small or large amount, whether it’s a big organisation or a small community project – is always going to be of value to them.

I want to get better at this. It’s easy to get stuck the rabbithole of where’s best to donate, which type of organisation, how do I know my donation will be effective, am I making the best choice etc etc.

To get unstuck, I’m learning to let this whole idea of ‘best’ go. Donations are more than money, anyway. They are a show of support and belief in the work.

My new rule is, don’t fixate on what’s ‘best’. If a donation drive crosses your path and it’s something you believe in and you can spare a few (or many) dollars, make a donation.

You might not be able to spend that money on cupcakes any more, but that wasn’t going to make the world a better place either.

I make a monthly donation to IndigenousX, who fund and give a platform to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices across Australia. I’ve learned so much through their writing.

Because I’m self-employed and my income isn’t regular, I don’t commit to regular monthly donations other than this – although I have plans to when I can. I made a donation to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation on my birthday, I made a donation to Boorloo Justice (Boorloo is the Whadjuk name for Perth) for their Decolonise Pride fundraiser, I supported the Learn Our Truth crowdfunding campaign organised by the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition and In My Blood It Runs.

I also purchased a photo print that was a fundraiser for the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project. (Does that count?)

And at the other end of the scale, I supported a local community garden in their fundraiser to get new chickens.

Making an in-kind donation

You might not have money to donate, but you might have a product or service you can donate. I’ve donated copies of my books to the Hilton Harvest community garden, and Free the Hounds (a greyhound charity) simply because they reached out to ask me – and I like gardening and greyhounds!

If you’re a writer, needleworker, an artist or some other creator, maybe you can offer your creations to organisations to help them with their fundraising efforts.

Volunteering your time

If you don’t have money but you do have time, maybe volunteering is for you. Volunteering can mean so many things, from getting out and about and hands-on to helping with social media. It can be a regular commitment, or one-off jobs as required.

It can be helping an established organisation, an informal local group or even helping one person (for example, with their weekly shopping).

In the past I’ve volunteered for not-for-profit organizations, but currently my focus is on much more local activities – such as hosting the community Grow Free cart and helping get our new community Street Activators group up and running.

I also admin a couple of zero waste Facebook groups.

My energy, enthusiasm and time for volunteering ebbs and flows, and right now this is all I have the capacity to do. But I’d love to volunteer at the Food Rescue place sometime in the future.

2020 (and 2021) have left me feeling a little bit ‘stuck’. Unsure where I want to concentrate my focus, and unsettled by all of the change. Simple acts like picking up litter, buying some (plastic-free) teabags at the grocery store to give to the food bank or making a donation to a group whose request popped up in my feed are tangible things that I can do, today, in the moment, to help make things a little bit better.

As Anne Frank said, no-one has ever become poor by giving.

Tis the season of ‘stuff’: what to do with (and where to donate) gifts you don’t need

I know we haven’t actually got to Christmas Day yet, but I’m writing this now because plenty of gifts (and other things you don’t need) are given before Christmas Day. And if you can, passing it on before Christmas Day means it’s more likely to be wanted (and used) than if you wait until January, when everyone is trying to pass on stuff they don’t need.

Last weekend, I was given a Santa-themed gift bag with a couple of boxes of chocolates by my 92-year-old grandfather-in-law. Despite the fact he doesn’t like gifts himself and insists not to be given anything, he seems to like to give stuff, and every year I receive a similar bag of stuff.

First, I give the gift bag away. As soon as I get home. If I can gift to someone before Christmas, it will get reused immediately. Otherwise it’s got to face a year in storage where it might get bent, chewed or otherwise damaged, and then likely forgotten about anyways.

I almost always give the ‘treats’ away. They tend not to be things that I would eat, high in sugar, dairy and palm oil and covered in plastic. Depending on the year I’ve taken to workplaces, given away on Buy Nothing or donated to a Food Bank collection.

No, I don’t feel bad. People give gifts because they enjoy the act of giving. That doesn’t mean that I need to keep things I don’t want or don’t need. There is no obligation to keep things, and letting go of feeling like there is has been great for my stress levels and mental health.

Instead, I try to make sure these things go to places where they will be used.

If I know someone else wants and will use them, that is the best outcome – for me, for them, and for the planet. (It helps stop others buy new stuff, as they can reuse stuff that already exists.)

Christmas Packaging, Decorations and Other Christmas-Themed Things

It’s definitely best to get rid of this stuff before Christmas than after. If you get something you don’t really like, you don’t need to think that you ‘should’ use it as a token gesture this year. Pass it on to someone who loves it and let it be appreciated!

Where to pass on items:

Facebook groups: including Facebook Marketplace, Buy Nothing groups, the Good Karma Network, Pay It Forward groups and no doubt plenty more.

Online classifieds: Gumtree, Craigslist and others.

Neighbourhood network groups like nextdoor.com.

Friends, family, neighbours, colleagues: it’s worth mentioning to people you know that you have things they might want or need.

Gift Food Items

As well as all the places mentioned above, consider donating food items to Food Banks. you’ll often find deposit points spring up in supermarkets and shopping centres this time of year. If you can’t find one, here are some contact details:

Food Bank Australia

The Trussel Trust (UK)

Feeding America/Food Bank USA

If the item is something that Food Banks won’t accept, such as homemade preserves or a box of chocolates that you opened to try before deciding you didn’t like them after all, consider trying to pass on via a food waste app like olioex.com.

Or try your local Buy Nothing group.

(Recent offers on my local Buy Nothing group include Red Rooster small hot chips, delivered by accident – sadly no takers but only because they went cold before anyone saw the post – and some half-eaten room temperature blue cheese, which was snapped up. Not. Even. Kidding. And good for them for not feeling weird about giving or receiving said cheese! Don’t be scared to give it a try!)

Gifted Toiletries and Perfume

I often wonder how many gift sets like this are purchased and never used every year. But I probably don’t want to know. Rather than letting stuff like this languish in the bathroom for the next year, if you’re not going to use it, give it away.

As well as the options listed above, consider donating unopened toiletries to homeless organisations and women’s refuges. Bear in mind that refuges won’t list their actual addresses online, but they will let you know how to donate items.

If you’re in Perth, Ruah Community Services are currently in need of unopened toiletries. Donations can be dropped off at the Ruah Centre, 33 Shenton Street, Northbridge on Monday to Friday between 8:30am – 4:00pm.

If you’re not in Perth, a quick internet search will help you find a service local to you.

What not to do: donate to the charity shop

I know it seems counter-intuitive, but try to resist giving anything to the charity shop unless you know for sure (because you’ve spoken to someone who works at your local charity shop this week) that they want what you have. Charity shops get inundated with stuff in the three months after Christmas as everyone tries to ‘declutter’ their unwanted stuff guilt-free.

Thing is, who is actually shopping at the charity shop in January? Not most people. They just got a heap of stuff for Christmas!

The combination of more stuff than usual and less customers than usual is a recipe for landfill.

There are plenty of people who want your stuff and will be able to use it. Rather than hoping they will pass by the charity shop and spot your stuff in there, donate your items directly to those in need of them.

Christmas is the season of goodwill and giving. So give away what you won’t use, make another person happy, save some resources and take a little pressure of the planet. Wins all round :)