1. Find an organization you feel good about. Talk to friends, family and acquaintances in your community to identify an organization that has a good reputation and (most importantly) that you will be enthusiastic about helping. It could be a women’s shelter, a food bank or a soup kitchen. You can do a little more research on the organization by checking them out on a Web site that evaluates how well a nonprofit organization is being run. However, be aware that not all organizations can be found on these sites. Many nonprofits are too small to be included. Don’t rule out working with a nonprofit just because it didn’t pop up on one of the Web sites. However, if you want to do the extra research, you can try any (or all) of these sites:
2. Contact the nonprofit. You’ll probably want to talk to the donations coordinator or donations “in-kind” coordinator (who handles donations of goods, rather than money). Tell them what you’re trying to do. They can help you come up with a list of goods that the organization needs. They can also tell you if the nonprofit has any special needs. For example, the nonprofit may run short of operating money at the end of the month – so it might be helpful to drop off your donations late in the month, when they’re most needed. A sample list of these “evergreen” items can be found here.
3. Find people who can help make a difference. Many people are uncomfortable asking friends, neighbors or co-workers for something. I’ve found that people are frequently grateful to be given a chance to participate. And the people who declined to participate weren’t offended, they were just unable to take part (many of them were involved in other charitable efforts). I encourage you to ask anyone that you think may be interested in being a part of your project. Don’t pressure people or send them on guilt trips if they hesitate or decline to participate.
4. Make an e-mail list of the people who are interested in participating. Send them the list of needs for the nonprofit you’re working with, and ask them to let you know if/when they have something to donate. Once or twice a month (or whenever is convenient for you and your fellow participants) go around and collect the donations. If you have the time, make an inventory of what you’ve collected before you drop it off at the nonprofit. This will make it easier for the nonprofit to see what they’re getting (and it will come in handy for you later). It also helps you estimate the value of the overall donation. Most charities will ask you to do some paperwork when you drop off the donation, including an estimated value.
5. Send a follow-up e-mail to the participants in your project after you drop off each month’s donation. You can use this opportunity to thank them for their help, let them know if the nonprofit has any special needs for the next month, and give them the itemized list of the previous month’s donations. This provides some transparency, so people know that you are giving all of the donations to the nonprofit – and not keeping any for yourself. It is important that you be trustworthy, and that you be open about the entire process. Also, put a note at the bottom of every e-mail you send to your fellow participants letting them know that they can remove themselves from the mailing list (and the project) just by asking. It should be as easy to remove yourself from the project as it was to become involved in the first place.
For more information about First Step Project or questions about starting your own project, email me at shiplives [at] gmail.com.