US-centric: What if you could use your computer for more than writing up the latest TPS report or surfing the webernets for last night's Family Guy episodes? You can, with the many excellent charity and volunteer organisations that have placed their services on the web. More than ever before in recent history, you can literally use your computer to make a difference in someone's life...indirectly, hands-on through your computer, or showing up in person. Let's take a look at just a few of the sites and services that are striving to help somebody out.
Use your computer to help
There are many charitable web sites that enable you to help someone through your computer. For instance, on the Breast Cancer Site, you can click to sponsor free mammograms for women who need them (sponsored advertising pays for the clicks and in turn the mammograms). GoodSearch is a search engine that you can use just like any other search engine, except this one donates 50% of its revenue to charity. At FirstGiving, you can raise money online through a variety of methods for any nonprofit organisation in the U.S.
Care2 is an extremely large charitable networking organisation where you can do a variety of things: set up a giving campaign, click to donate, set up petitions, and a whole lot more. Idealist is similar; you can also use this site to exchange resources between organisations and find supporters for your particular causes; there's also Grassroots, which provides free help to nonprofit charitable organisations. If you're wanting to find out more about the fiscal history of the charities that you're looking to help, check out Charity Navigator, an organisation that evaluates the financial health of the U.S.'s largest charities.
Just a few clicks of your mouse can make quite a difference, and Charity Click Donation has all the sites that use clicks (again, it's all ad-supported revenue) to raise money. Be sure to read the FAQs on helping out in this manner; there are usually some pretty strict guidelines you've got to follow in order to keep everything kosher. If you're a eBay fan (and really, who isn't?), then you'll definitely want to check out eBay Giving Works—anything you buy on eBay with a charity icon on it goes to supporting a cause of some kind.
Hands on help through your computer
Many organisations make it possible to help individuals directly on the web. For example, there's Kiva, a service that helps you connect with small businesses in developing countries that need mini-loans in order to make it. If you're feeling crafty and you'd like to use your talents for a higher good, then you'll want to check out Humanitarian Aid Patterns and Patterns for Charity; two sites that give you a multitude of craft projects you can make for humanitarian aid projects.
The One Laptop Per Child project enables givers to purchase a laptop for a child in the developing world. NABURR connects you directly to people online in Asia, Africa, and Latin America; they tell you about their challenges and you work together (with a facilitator) to help solve problems—money is not always the issue, although it certainly does help. A similar organisation is the UN's Online Volunteering arm—this service connects developing organisations and volunteers over the 'net and enables them to solve issues collaboratively.
Use your computer to show up in person
Not only can you use your computer to help people directly and indirectly, you can also use it to find organisations that could use your physical help—in other words, getting out from behind your computer and volunteering in real life.
Volunteer Match, MyCommitment, and DoSomething are organisations that hook people up with volunteer opportunities in their local communities; there are literally thousands of possibilities here for any kind of volunteering you might be interested in.
The Taproot Foundation finds pro bono opportunities in nonprofit organisations for professionals; a great way to pad your resume, by the way.
How about beyond your borders? Try Stuff Your Rucksack, an organization that enables world travelers to fill needs that they see in local communities around the world. Cross Cultural Solutions finds opportunities for you to work side by side with local people in places that need help all over the world; you get to experience another culture at the same time you're making a difference in the community.
All in all, there are hundreds of ways that you can reach out to people that need a hand up. How do you find opportunities to volunteer—please let us know in the comments.
AU - This is an interesting, if US-centric list. I know of a few cool Australian sites like Good Company, but I think I'll go looking for a few more and do a similar roundup for Lifehacker AU. Please leave any suggestions in comments. :)
Wendy Boswell, Lifehacker's Weekend Editor, wishes she could find more time to volunteer.