How can I really help?

There are lots of ways for Americans to lend a hand to people in developing nations. Here’s how to find some that work. By Vince Beiser, TakePart World

Fair-trade shoes made in Africa. (Photo: Oliberté/Facebook)

Fair-trade shoes made in Africa. (Photo: Oliberté/Facebook)

You read the news, you watch the documentaries, you listen to the songs: You’re concerned about all those people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America who don’t get enough to eat, suffer from terrible diseases, or are fleeing wars and disasters. You want to help.

But how? Sponsor a child? Donate a goat? Build a school? Buy a pair of shoes from TOMS? How can you figure out if that organization you just heard about on Good Morning America is really doing righteous work, or if it’s just a feel-good scam?

You’ve got questions. We’ve got answers. Here’s a breakdown of ways to help.

1. Give money to an organization.

The simplest, most straightforward thing to do: cut a check to an existing group, be it a venerable giant like the American Red Cross or a grassroots program at your local church. Many groups also make it easy for you to rope in your family and friends by donating your birthday. Other forward-thinking outfits are taking a lesson from Silicon Valley and using crowdfunding to raise cash.

Upsides: Easy. Usually entitles you to a tax deduction.

Downsides: Maybe not as emotionally satisfying as doing something more direct. Possibility that your contribution will be wasted on poorly planned projects or bloated bureaucracies—or simply stolen.

How can you make sure an organization is doing good work and using donations efficiently? GiveWell offers recommendations of a small number of what it considers high-quality charities, based on deeply detailed analyses of their performance. It’s not to be confused with Give.org, a service of the Better Business Bureau, which offers less in-depth reports on a larger number of selected organizations. Charity Navigator has its own rankings. Finally, all legally registered nonprofit organizations have to file financial reports detailing income, expenditures, and salaries paid to their top executives; you can find most of them on Guidestar.

You might also want to take a look at this ranking by a group of economists on the cost-effectiveness of various types of foreign aid (clean water scores high; free laptops, not so much).

2. Give money to individuals.

Many organizations offer the opportunity to sponsor a child in the developing world. In most cases, though, according to Stephen Commins, a development expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, the cash doesn’t go directly to the kid; it’s pooled with other donations to help the child’s community. Other outfits, such as Heifer International, allow you to buy a farm animal that will be given to a family. Or you can loan small but meaningful amounts to would-be entrepreneurs through micro-lending outfits like Kiva.

Upsides: See above. Also, the warm-and-fuzzy feeling of personal connection.

Downsides: Giving an animal can backfire if the family isn’t equipped to take care of it. Ultimately, helping one person is nice, but it doesn’t address the systemic issues that keep whole communities and nations impoverished.

3. Give time.

Pretty much every charity in the world is looking for volunteers to do everything from stuff envelopes and answer phones to help organize fund-raising events. The United Nations even operates a clearinghouse where you can find ways to volunteer online to help organizations all over the world without ever leaving home.

Upsides: Make new friends, and maybe get some in-person kudos. Good way to get to know the industry if you’re thinking of making a career out of it.

Downside: Stuffing envelopes is as tedious as it sounds.

4. Volunteer in a developing country.

There’s a range of possibilities here, from signing up for stints of a year or longer to trips lasting a few days. The Peace Corps is undoubtedly the most famous route to overseas do-gooding, but many other groups accept volunteers for foreign assignments. There’s always the option of paying to go on a “voluntourist” trip.

Upsides: Exciting. If you’re a professional, such as a doctor or an engineer, your skills will likely be much appreciated and put to good use.

Downsides: If you have no real skills or relevant experience, chances are you could do more good by just sending money. Volunteers often have to pay for their own transportation and even food and lodging. The cost of sending a large group of Americans to Africa, says Moses Tesi, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University, could instead fund construction of a passel of schools. Also, you might be guilty of “white savior complex.” If you decide to go anyway, here’s an excellent set of resources on what to consider before signing up.

5. Shop for a better world.

From fair-trade coffee vendors to trendy-eyewear makers, there’s no shortage of businesses that claim buying their products will help poor people somewhere in the world.

Upside: Whatever else happens, at least you end up with a sack of coffee or a new pair of sneakers.

Downside: Studies indicate that such programs don’t have much impact.

6. Advocate.

You can only do so much as an individual—but you can boost that impact by convincing other people, including elected officials, to support your cause. Sign petitions. Write or call your local politicians. Organize fund-raisers for your favorite charity. Use Facebook, Twitter, and whatever other social media you’re on to spread the word.

Upside: Chance of having an outsize impact.

Downside: Decent odds of irritating your friends and family.

Like this story? Get more at TakePart World.

Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award. Follow him on Twitter at @vincelb