Contributed by Ukrainian Aid Worker, Jon Peerbolt
We all want to change the world. None of us are totally satisfied with the way things are. Death, war, mosquitos, the 2020 elections, heartbreak, inequality, TikTok, famine, traffic, and natural disasters all challenge our acceptance of the world as it is. We all hope that when we die, we’ll leave the world a little better than we found it. But how exactly do we do that?
If your childhood was anything like mine, you were probably told about starving children in Africa in order to persuade you to eat all of your food and be grateful for what you have (to be fair, your parents were not wrong: just in Sub-Saharan Africa, an average of 3 children under the age of 5 die every minute from malnutrition). Yet, you were probably never told there was anything you could do to feed those starving children.
You might have even been told about the wars happening in the Middle East. Perhaps you heard about how many women in countries like Afghanistan are marginalized and not given access to education. These examples are often quite successful at inspiring guilt and forcing us to reflect on our privilege, but again, you personally had no ability to stop those wars or educate those women. Even now, all grown up, it’s easy to look at all the problems in the world and feel powerless to effectuate positive change.
In 2020, I was working in a sales job selling luxury products while also investing in real estate on the side. In my little Midwest bubble, I had the impression that the best way to do good in the world was just taking care of the people nearest to me. When my brother needed some money to move into a new place, I agreed to help out. When my sister needed a new car, I happily provided money for a down payment.
I would give my time to help people with projects around the house or yard work for elderly neighbors. In my mind, I thought that I was doing my part to serve those in need. I knew that people around the world were dealing with much more extreme forms of suffering, but what could I do about that?
Through a series of events too convoluted to communicate here, I discovered that I could do more. I just returned from the front lines of Ukraine where the organization that I work for called Novi helps to support the mental and physical health of the children living in the crossfire. This work is done primarily by local Ukrainian volunteers, and our Ukrainian staff, and my role is primarily advocacy, monitoring, and assessment.
I went from being a salesman to leveraging my privilege and gifts to benefit children and families who are suffering under war and poverty, living on the other side of the world. The truth is you can do the same and, no, you don’t have to jump on a plane like I did and travel to the front lines of the Ukrainian war with Russia.
Before I get into how you can make an impact on the world, I think it’s important to address some of the many reasons why people say they are excused from participating in making the world a better place. In truth, most of these excuses are subconscious and we don’t always know that we are holding them. I have personally held all of these ideas at various points in my journey, and maybe you hold some of them now.
1) The “Drop in the Bucket” Fallacy
Even though it has been disproven many times, this idea still prevents many from putting their resources into making the world a better place. The logic goes something like this: The problems in the world are so big, and my ability to help is so small that it wouldn’t even make a difference. I have struggled with this idea myself and my favorite answer to this fallacy is a story:
A large storm from the night before had washed thousands of orange starfish ashore and they were all destined to dry up and die in the sun. A little boy was there throwing them back into the water as fast as he could. One after another splashed into the sea, saved from a terrible fate. A while later, an older man approached the boy and said, “Why are you wasting your time, the beach is huge and there are thousands of them, you’ll never make a difference.” The boy calmly threw another lucky starfish into the water and replied, “I made a difference to that one.”
2) It’s Impossible
A major reason I continually encounter for why people are reluctant to become involved with change making is the perception that the problems are simply too massive to overcome. In reality, there are reliable bridges between our abundance and the needs of people living in less advantaged areas. Even though there are lots of charities that are dishonest and ineffective, there are also lots of charities out there doing incredible and beautiful things, like Novi. More importantly, finding them is not as hard as it used to be.
3) Scarcity Mindset
The scarcity mindset is especially pervasive in times of economic downturn. No matter how wealthy a person is, if their assets, investments, or income suffers losses, the first thing to get cut is their philanthropy. This isn’t because they are bad people. Rather, our biology as humans is programmed for survival. As a result, when resources become scarce, many people find it challenging to stay generous.
Jesus told a beautiful story about this innate tendency in our DNA called “The Widow’s Mite” (Lk. 21:1-4; Mk 12:41-44). To paraphrase, Jesus was in the temple and saw many rich men giving large amounts of money to the temple treasury, and then a poor widow came along and put in two mites (about $2 in today’s money). Jesus said that this poor widow had given more than any of those rich men because they had given from their abundance, but she had given from a place of need. She ignored her biology which I’m sure was screaming at her, “NO! KEEP THE MONEY!” and chose to live in a mindset of abundance.
4) Someone Else’s Problem
This is the idea that these global issues should be solved by governments, the church, or the ultra-wealthy, and if they would just “do their part” then we wouldn’t have these problems. This might technically be true, but it is unhelpful. If all the world’s resources were used and distributed equitably, it would indeed solve some immediate problems, but it is so far from the reality of our lived experience that I don’t see it as a good enough reason to not get involved. From another angle, these problems can also be seen as opportunities to express love and goodwill in the world. Those who turn their back and say, “It’s not my problem,” are in a sense robbing themselves of an opportunity to grow and develop as a person.
5) Analysis Paralysis
Have you ever taken the time to research where help is most needed, but you got buried in terabytes of data, statistics, and donor appeals, all of which sound so urgent that it becomes impossible to decide? This is also something I have experienced. I have chosen to work with children in Ukraine, but what about Sudan? What about Yemen? What about inner-city Chicago? For myself, I have decided to help in this area because I believe it is the best balance between what is needed and what I have to offer. That being said, anywhere you decide to help, is better than not helping at all. As I do my work in Ukraine, I have to trust that caring and generous people are working just as hard in Sudan, Yemen, and all the places where people need help.
6) How Much Is Enough?
Sometimes it’s very difficult to know how much to give. We understand that selling everything we own and giving the money away isn’t practical because then we would become dependent ourselves. On the other hand, if we give something as small as $1 per year, it can feel half-hearted and not really what we can give. Therefore, we understand that the proper amount is somewhere between $1 per year and everything we have, but where is that line?
Well, there are a couple of interesting movements that have attempted to answer that question. One is called “Giving What We Can” started by Toby Ord and another is called “Effective Altruism” which was co-founded by philosopher Will MacAskill. These movements advocate for giving 10% of your income to highly effective charities. Ultimately, each person decides what is right for them, but I do recommend budgeting, and planning to give a certain amount, because it takes the pressure off. Whatever cause you care about (educational, environmental, sex trafficking, or helping kids in war zones like my organization, Novi), if you know you have $500, or $5,000 set aside for making positive change in the world, then you can approach it with some excitement, and anticipation of living out what you believe in in this way.
7) I Have My Own Problems
Life is hard, and expensive. Car repairs, leaky faucets, interest rates going up, and inflation are all real-world expenses that can dominate our attention. It’s not surprising that with all of the problems a person can face, the well-being of someone on the other side of the world isn’t our top priority. This is another one of those ideas that is true, but often unhelpful. Our instinct is usually to take care of ourselves first, then help those in need if we have extra. What many people don’t realize is that putting others first with our money is a much more effective strategy for achieving happiness and fulfillment (see Spending Money On Others Promotes Happiness by Dr. Lara B. Aknin et al 2013).
8) It Doesn’t Feel Real
If I tell you that there are 450 million children living in active war zones, it doesn't feel real. Even if I’m more specific and tell you that over 1.2 million children are displaced inside of Ukraine right now it still feels distant and intangible. When I tell you that the recent flooding in Kherson displaced thousands and left tens of thousands without clean water it sounds like a news headline that you might bring up at lunch to spark interesting conversation, but it’s unlikely to inspire action.
People need personal stories to make these statistics real. Take Alex for instance. Alex is eleven years old, he loves playing video games, football, and he also speaks fluent English and Korean. He grew up in a village in the east of Ukraine that is now occupied by Russia. Before his family fled, a missile hit his apartment building and killed several of his neighbors.
After the first explosion, Alex’s mother threw a mattress over him to protect him from the debris, and moments later another missile hit the street outside and launched the dumpster which was bolted to the concrete through their living room window, crashing just a few feet from Alex. They got into their car and fled for their lives making it out just in time.
Shortly after they left the entire town was destroyed and everyone left was killed as Russian forces captured the area. Now Alex and his mom live in a dorm style shelter in the west with hundreds of other displaced people in a city that is still bombed regularly.
Alex is a part of our Nutritious Food Distribution program and after factoring in admin and logistics costs it costs about $25 per month to make sure he has the food he needs to survive and that he has the nutrients he needs for his brain and body to develop properly.
This story probably makes you feel different. It takes an abstract war and makes it feel more real because we can all picture an apartment building getting blown up. We can relate to a mother’s instinct to protect her child. The point I’m trying to make is that when it comes to giving, it’s good to remember that each statistic has a story behind it, we just might not know what that story is.
Making a Difference
When I talk about giving, I’m mostly talking about giving money, and not time or advocacy. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, I believe that donating money is the most ethical and effective way for those of us who have access to wealth and high paying jobs in the west to help solve these global problems. In truth, our money is the part of the solution that we are most capable of supplying so that local people can do this important work thousands of miles away.
Secondly, in order for you to donate your time, you need geographical accessibility to solve the problem. Although I’m sure there are many local charities that would love your volunteer time (and please give it to them if you have the time to spare!), many of the most acute humanitarian problems are far away.
What I often see is that when a person cares about a problem far away, they use their social media accounts to advocate on behalf of those trying to solve the problem. I love when people post about Novi because it spreads awareness of how we’re helping to resolve the trauma of children in war zones. But as important as advocacy is, I think it’s equally important to put your money where your mouth is, even in small ways. Many times, the loudest voices on social media feel hollow and fake because they aren’t backed up with real action or sacrifice.
I’m writing all of this to hopefully inspire you to engage with some of these issues and maybe rethink what you thought was possible. Even though 450 million children living in active war zones feels like an unapproachable number, we can make a difference to one person, or maybe two people, and that is how we change the world.
I would like to end this post with one last story of my time in Ukraine. In Zaporizhzhya, which is a city about 20 miles from the fighting, there is a little girl named Victoria. Everyone calls her Vika for short. She’s 9 years old and has a bundle of energy. We connected because we both like the game Tag. In Ukraine they call it “Voda,” which means Water. So instead of saying “You’re it!” you say, “You’re water!”
We played tag quite a bit with the other children in the area and then afterwards we did an art therapy project where they created an emotionally aware, life size self-portrait. In this portrait, they identify the four basic emotions and where they feel them in their bodies. Then we ask them which coping mechanisms they use to manage these feelings (of course, we ask this in a way that the children can understand). They are also asked to identify who in their community helps them process through those feelings. The goal is to give the children a language to talk about their feelings with the safe adults in their lives.
Vika was very excited about this and poured herself into the project. The next day, I was talking to Vika’s mother who started tearing up a little and told me that Vika had pinned her self-portrait above her bed. They had stayed up until midnight that evening talking about their feelings and how the war has impacted both of them. She wanted to thank us for giving her daughter language to talk about those things.
In a world where missiles, bombs and artillery are aimed at children, it seems very important to me that those who have the ability to help, provide whatever assistance they can muster. Even though each of our contributions may be small, together we can leverage whatever gifts and privileges we’ve been given to make the world a little safer, a little brighter and a little more equitable.
If you would like support Novi and our mission to help the children of Ukraine recover from the trauma of the war, please click here. Every dollar helps make a difference in the lives of the children in war-torn regions around the world.
Note from Alex Lang: I would like to add that with the destruction of the dam in Kherson, Novi has had to spend a lot of their resources to help with the basic needs of people displaced by the flooding. They require donations so that they can continue doing the important work of healing children and adults over in Ukraine. I personally know Jon Peerbolt and Steve Gumaer, the founder of Novi. I cannot say enough good things about their organization. If you can donate anything to their cause, I guarantee that your money will be changing lives for the better. Thank you for caring!