Our Daily Bleg: What’s a Concerned Citizen to Do?

We received this good and heartfelt bleg from Jim Farmer of Chattanooga, Tenn. Don’t let him down. And send your own blegs here.

Although my wife and I are very involved in our community, I am invigorated by the election results and want to step up some more.


My question is what can I do that will get the most bang for the buck for my community, my region, my country, my world? Should I work an extra hour a week and donate it [the extra income] to a charity or cause, or should I donate an hour of my time to a charity, cause, civic group, or whatever. Of course, [I’d like to know] which ones as well.

My wife and I are both Bigs in Big Brothers/Big Sisters and really feel that it has the most bang for the buck, but I’m curious about the economics of it. Just thought it would be an interesting topic and would bring out some good commentary from the peanut gallery.

Not long ago we ran a similar bleg, but Jim, while interested in a fairly specific topic, opens up the floor to a broader one as well: How is a “concerned citizen” supposed to act these days?


Rationally, I think your time is better spent working an extra hour and donating the money. But this is also a great way to stay removed and distant from the cause you're trying to help!

I'd guess it's far more rewarding to actually volunteer. And the rewarding nature of it might help you volunteer for say 3 hours a week or month, which might then be more valuable than working 1 hour and donating the cash.

I also have a pretty strong belief that volunteering is better than donating money because it is more likely to incite others to volunteer.


There's no one answer to this question, as it depends on the problems/needs you want to address. Obviously, for charities that operate where you aren't, working extra and sending the earned money is more effective! For local concerns, it depends on the situation -- BB/BS and food banks and little leagues and literacy groups, etc., need people-hours... but as you get to know the organizations and their financial needs, the money might prove more important.

Regardless, many charities need both time/effort and money, and ideally there are many folks who, taken together, provide enough of both, so take comfort in knowing that whatever you choose to do, you're doing good... and if it isn't the "greatest good" on some external scale, it nevertheless is good both for the recipients and for yourself.


From a simple economic perspective, you should work the extra hour a week and donate the money. This can be seen in two different ways. First, charities are generally better able then you are to determine the precise amount of labor vs. capital (beds, kitchens, housing supplies, etc) that they might need. If you volunteer an hour, you only give them labor. If you give them money, they can make the decision whether to buy capital or higher workers. Also, if you give them money, you can more efficiently distribute charity to where it is needed most. You are unlikely to work in Africa for one hour every week, but your monetary contribution could higher several workers in a poor African country.

This consideration leads to the second economic argument. You in general will be more productive in your day job than you would be as a volunteer. Soup kitchen work is relatively unproductive labor (its less productive in terms of the number of meals served than many minimum wage jobs). We can assume that volunteer type labor commands a rather low wage. Thus, donating money, you enable charities to perchase more labor than you could supply them personally. This effect is magnified in international charities. Taking price power parity in consideration, your monitary contribution could do a world of good in an extremely poor country.

On the other hand, the one advantage of donating time is that ensure that your donation actually serves the poor. Charities range in how effectively they use money (some are corrupt and some are merely inefficient). If you are worried that your donation will be wasted, it's safer to donate time. The question is therefore how risk-averse are you? Personally, I think most charities are reasonablly efficient, and the web gives you good information on which charities to avoid. I'd donate the money.



Another option beyond Big Brothers/Big Sisters is to volunteer with the Boy Scouts (or Girl Scouts). With this you could affect more youth in a positive way at once. And while I'm not familiar with the Girl Scouts' policies, you and your wife could volunteer together with the Boy Scouts. If you're in Chattanooga you'll want to contact the Cherokee Area Council and they can find you a unit near where you live. As an added bonus, if/when you have kids it's an organization you can participate in together.

sean samis

Time spent with children (anyone's children) has the biggest pay-off over time; mentored child is more likely to grow up to be a contributing adult. BB/BS is a good use of time; reading programs, etc too.

Brian B.

In order to get a serious bang for your buck, but mostly depending on your willingness, I would suggest joining the Peace Corps upon retirement. This would allow you to volunteer, help foreign countries meet their needs, and make a great name for the USA. You will make an impact on both a global and local level. I know I will join up when I hit that point in my life.



Old Comedian line "Don't applaud, just throw money" a little cynical I think and that's the way I feel about "Mike's" comment.

Personally, I think personal involvement beats money 3-1.

Why? Because you care enough and believe enough to put yourself on the line and not just a check. If there aren't any opportunities in your community, spread your wings and try the county or state level.

You can make a difference, if you really want to.

Ken Pirok

You can run for a local office yourself. It that's too much, then you can volunteer by joining a local board or commission. Nearly every municipality has a zoning board, a convention and visitors bureau, a cable commission, a library board, a PTA, and a plethora of specific, targeted citizen advisory boards. Sometimes they just can't get enough volunteers for these.

Max Harcourt

It depends on how much you make at your day job.

Matt Metcalf

Let's not forget the economics of the issue: different charities and service organizations put a different value on an hour of labor. For some, a scarcity of labor (volunteers) may cause the value of labor to be higher, while others may have plenty of labor but be short of cash. It also depends on Jim's price for labor (i.e., if he's making minimum wage, donating an hour's pay isn't going to do much, but if he makes $100/hour, it could provide great benefit to a non-profit).


I just want to note that many people who are quite productive at work are being paid a salary, not hourly. So an extra hour of their time at work does not generate any additional money to donate. Therefore, if you are salaried, the volunteer vs. work more decision is quite different.


A lawyer asked a similar question of Jesus: "Who is my neighbor?"

I noticed some things in the telling of the parable that struck me....

1) You will have a compassion for someone in need, and that will drive your to help them (assuming you don't harden your heart). The good Samaritan had compassion on the victim...and helped him. So, if I will help those I have compassoin on...and you will help those YOU have compassion on, I have a feeling God will get it all done.

2) The Samaritan was involved both personally and monetarily. It's easy (and needful!) to send money to charities, etc. But it is also important to be involved yourself.

3) Your "neighbor" is anyone in need who strikes your compassion. I think the question should not be so much "what is the biggest bang for the buck?" in cases such as this, but "what need or person has moved me to compassion? We do our best and most passionate good when we have compassion. So put your efforts to those things that stir you deeply, for I believe they are the things that you are called to address.



I would like to add that there are organizations out there, such as Jr. League, that train volunteers. These extra skills increase the value of a volunteered hour.

Joe Smith

I think that the Big Brothers and Big Sisters work probably offers you the biggest potential bang for your volunteer time. I tried to do much the same thing by adopting a troubled child - that is not for the faint of heart.

The world has a serious shortage of grown-ups / responsible adults.

Eric M. Jones

"Bang for the Buck"? Does this mean YOU want to feel the best for the least effort?--or do the most good with a given input of time and/or labor?

Microloans seem to be a good way to make the world better, albeit in non-US countries. Supporting Planned Parenthood clinics might help most closer to home. The Salvation Army is a good place to put money.

As others have noted, it is generally more efficient to earn money and donate the money than to volunteer.


I dont know about the BEST bang for your buck, but i have always been a fan of the organizations


and http://www.heifer.org/

The first is like myspace meets the world bank. You can look up profile of 1000s of business in poor country's around the world in need. You can sort by type of business, level of need, or location. Once your find some one you can donate as little as 25 dollars (usually the loans are in increments of 500-1000). Once you donate you can also see the profiles of other people who have donated. Best of all its not a gift its a loan and 98% of loans are paid back, and you can re loan the money or pull it out. I dunno about best, but thats a pretty good bang for the buck.

The second is a little more traditional. Money donated here goes towards providing animals like cows, chickens, and goats that can produce products to sell instead of just providing food. A sort of literal interpretation of the famous " your can give a man a fish" idea

I have donated to both as well as traveled to Africa and seen first hand the impressive benifit both programs have. I would strongly encourage support of either one.

Though i guess that does mean that working an extra hour is in my eyes more productive, a tleast on a world scale.


Jim Farmer

“Bang for the Buck”? Does this mean YOU want to feel the best for the least effort?–or do the most good with a given input of time and/or labor?

---I just want to be efficient with my time/money. I'd "feel" better if I was spending my time/money wisely.

Time spent with children (anyone’s children) has the biggest pay-off over time


I do feel that the intangibles of volunteering (no overhead for the charity, inspiring others to do the same, etc) make the economics hard to quantify, but I believe that the dollar equivalent would be significant. You can get information on how well charities use their money, but it would be nice to have a way of comparing their use of volunteers.


Buffett had the same issue with donations, realizing that he could compound money so fast (relatively) it was better for him to keep cash than donate it from a NPV perspective.

My advice - run a successful business and orient it to your helpful objectives. Like Newman. Not an option...help someone else do it. The trickle down impact is enormous.

Dan Lyke

As others have pointed out, quantifying "most bang for your buck" seems to be the hard part. A good case has been made that less developed regions of the world are running a Malthusian zero-sum economy, in which case immediately raising the standard of living ends up lowering the overall standard of living, since population pressures become worse and everyone's fighting for fixed resources. To that end, donating money to family planning groups probably gives you the most bang-for-your-buck in terms of impact on the world..

There's an awful lot of friction in the economics of more local charity, organizations like United Way exist to do nothing other than take a cut of money that's going to local charities anyway (an argument can be made that they increase the donations, but you're socially conscious already, so not for you), thus being smart and judicious about your giving is important.

At least in our town, several charities are about connecting the economically disadvantaged with the economically advantaged, in the hopes that providing that contact will give the tools, attitudes and the social connections necessary to pull themselves up. I think BB/BS is exactly that sort of organization. You can't buy that, it can only be donated, and in terms of overall impact on both your community and the world long-term, spreading the Puritan (and I say that as an atheist) work ethic (as a meme or a virus) is going to have the best lasting payoff for future generations. It's not possible to buy that impact, there's no way someone could pay me what I make from my day job to hang out with and mentor those who haven't figured out how to be middle class, and the demand for such services exceeds the supply, thus I contend that the world gets more out of me donating my time than it would out of me donating money.


Carl Bunch

By far, the best thing you can do is NOT have any of your own kids, and adopt some unwanted children. (Good luck getting "Christians" to do that)

The world is overpopulated, especially with kids that need to be adopted. Not to mention the fact that having a kid creates the biggest carbon footprint possible.