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Philanthropy: 20 ways to improve the world, even if you’re broke

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Bebeto Matthews / AP / file

(Read caption) In this Feb. 27, 2009 file photo, Dr. Mary Fitzgerald, from New Brunswick, N.J., shows a bridal gown to her parents Pat, center, and Sue Fitzgerald, from Utica, N.Y. Why leave a wedding dress hanging in the closet forever when it can make someone else's dreams come true?

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So often, people assume that charity and philanthropy mean stretching an already-tight budget even further. “If I donated $100 to the food kitchen, I’d have to start using the food kitchen!” goes the common train of thought. (That’s not to say that donating money isn’t useful – it certainly is.)

Money can often be a very tight resource, but it’s far from the only resource you have. We all have so many things available to us to share with others that it only takes a moment of thought or effort to make a real difference in someone else’s life.

Here are twenty things anyone can donate to make the world a better place – and put a little bit of extra spring in their step – without blowing up their budget. Even better, many of these ideas will help you clean out your closets and declutter your home a bit. If you’re in need, this list might even help you find a charitable cause that can help you.

Donate your hair Locks of Love (http://www.locksoflove.org/) is a non-profit that provides hairpieces to disadvantaged children suffering from long term medical hair loss. It’s easy to donate – just grow your hair out to ten or more inches in length, cut it off, stick it in an envelope, and help out a kid that could really use a boost.

Donate your blood and/or plasma The Red Cross (http://www.redcrossblood.org/) runs blood drives in your community quite regularly, and many large communities have places where you can always donate. Keep an eye on your community calendar, then stop by and donate. It’s just a little prick on your arm, then you get a cookie and a drink and you’re on your way, while your blood is used to save someone’s life.

Similarly, donate your bone marrow Another renewable body resource you can donate is your bone marrow. The National Marrow Donor Program has a very detailed FAQ that discusses in detail the process of marrow donation.

Donate your vacation time Many workplaces make it possible to donate unused vacation time to people in dire need. Spend a day less at the beach next year and give that day to someone who is fighting a serious medical situation.

Donate your body space It’s all about the awareness for many charitable causes. Simply by having a band on your wrist or a ribbon on your lapel, you remind the people who see it of a charity and also let them know that there are people out there that passionately support the charity. Here’s a list of different charity awareness bracelets available.

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Similarly, donate your bumper Get a big old bumper sticker describing your favorite charity and slap it right on the back bumper of your car. The next time you’re stuck in traffic, your car is increasing the mindshare of the charity you care about.

Donate your wedding dress Making Memories (http://www.makingmemories.org/) is an awesome charity that helps women with metastatic breast cancer live out their dreams. Many of the wishes granted by Making Memories involve weddings, so the charity makes great use of the wedding dress you’ve got hanging in your closet. Unused gowns are auctioned to earn more money for this charity’s work, so even if your dress doesn’t get used by a needful bride, it still can help them.

Donate your unused home repair supplies Did you buy too many shingles and now have a big pile of them just sitting in your garage? Got a few gallons of leftover paint from a job where the paint didn’t match or you overestimated your needs? Habitat for Humanity (http://www.habitat.org/) can put those resources to good use building homes for the needy instead of those supplies going to waste sitting in your garage.

Donate your flowers Got extra flowers after a wedding or other event? Donate them. Contact your local florist or local hospital and ask about giving the leftover flower arrangements to people who need them for other events or who could really use them to brighten their day. You can do the same if you have flowers that grow around your home.

Donate your nasty old shoes Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe program (http://nikereuseashoe.com/) (check that site out – it has a great video explaining what they do in great detail) takes old, nasty running shoes and turns them into materials for public playgrounds and basketball courts. All you have to do is send ‘em in!

Donate your voice LibriVox (http://librivox.org/) creates free audiobooks for the public domain, which enables everyone to have access to great free listening materials. Such books are used as educational materials for the visually impaired, radio material for public stations, and countless other good uses. You can participate by volunteering to read and record a public domain book. You’ll learn something and make the world a better place.

Donate your old carpet Many animal shelters will accept donations of old, clean carpet for bedding for the sheltered pets. Contact your local shelter the next time you update your carpeting and see if they can put that old carpet to use.

Donate your cupboard excess or your extra garden vegetables If you’re anything like me, the next time you clean out your cupboards, you’ll find a bunch of items way in the back that will make you wonder if you can ever possibly use them before they expire. These are perfect items to donate to your local food pantry, where someone in need will have those items on their dinner table this week.

Donate your old computer Many charities would love to have that old computer of yours. It might not be up to snuff for watching downloaded high definition movies, but it’s perfectly good enough for a church to install Linux on and use for accounting purposes. Ask around at the local charities you support and, if you can’t find a home for it, ask TechSoup (http://home.techsoup.org/), which facilitates technology donations for nonprofit groups.

Donate your aluminum cans Our local high school has several groups that go through the neighborhoods once a year and ask for aluminum can and bottle donations. We simply store our used cans and bottles in a bin under the sink and when these groups come around, we gladly hand our cans and bottles over. If you don’t have such “to your door” service, many national groups facilitate the collection of cans and bottles – almost every Habitat for Humanity office will accept can and/or bottle donations.

Donate your used books Better World Books (http://www.betterworldbooks.com/) accepts donations of used books, which they then sell and give some of the proceeds in support of global literacy. If you have a bunch of books sitting around (and PaperBackSwap doesn’t excite you), this is a great way to turn a big box of used space into children who can read.

Donate the old stuff in your medicine cabinet Got medications you no longer need (especially sealed items that you never got around to using)? Got items to help you treat a condition that you’ve overcome? World Medical Relief (http://www.worldmedicalrelief.org/) will happily take those items and distribute them in a non-discriminatory fashion to people in real medical need.

Donate unwanted suits and business clothes Everyone has a suit or two in their closet that they rarely wear. Yet, at the same time, there are people out there beating the pavement, looking for work, and they can’t afford to dress for success and impress their potential employers. Two great charities, Dress for Success (http://www.dressforsuccess.org/) and Career Gear (http://careergear.org/), do exactly that, transforming the suit taking up space in your closet into opportunities for life-changing success for people who are reaching hard for that brass ring.

Donate your eyeglasses One of the best things (in my opinion) that the Lion’s Club (http://www.lionsclubs.org) does is run their eyeglasses donation program (http://donateglasses.org/). When your prescription changes, you’ll get new glasses and your old ones no longer have any use. Give them to your local Lion’s Club and they’ll help someone out there in need with vision impairment.

Donate your old magazines Once you’ve read that copy of The New Yorker, check and see if there isn’t a place in your area that could put the item to use. Senior citizen’s centers are almost always happy to receive magazine donations. If that doesn’t fit the bill, try hospitals and libraries in your area.

One final thought: donate your body When you pass on, your life has ended, but you have the ability to give the gift of life to others because of the life you left behind. Donate your organs and tissues to people who can use them. OrganDonor.gov (http://www.organdonor.gov/) provides everything you need to know about the need for organs and tissues and about how easy it is to be an organ donor.

The biggest lesson from this list is that we all have a lot of resources within us and around us that are of value and use to others. Sharing them, especially when it’s “no skin off our backs,” does nothing but make the world a better place. It makes you feel better, too.

I’ve collected these ideas from many different sources over the years. There are many great sources for ideas similar to (and overlapping with) these, including How to Be an Everyday Philanthropist by Nicole Bouchard Boles, The Generosity Plan by Kathy LeMay, and Give a Little by Wendy Smith. If these ideas excite you, dive into these books for more ideas than I could possibly share.

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