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How to (Really) Make a Difference

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve wanted to change the world on a large scale. But since I moved to DC, I have become increasingly cynical about anyone’s ability to do this.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. Adam Gurri, in a recent Umlat article said:

The crusader on behalf of the greater good who fights their hardest on behalf of policies whose outcomes they cannot hope to actually measure is nothing compared to the everyday citizen who does not hesitate to help pick up the pieces after a disaster. The activist-crusader is nothing compared to the neighbor who helps clear up the snow after a blizzard.

To an extent, I agree. An individual can make a difference through every single job that he or she does, whether it be teaching, plumbing or business. Those who are doing quality work and who are caring for the people in their lives might be doing just as much as politicians, professors or philanthropists.

But to call the efforts of someone who is working to alleviate poverty overseas “nothing” compared to actions of the local philanthropist seems a bit extreme as well. As unique individuals, we should celebrate and leverage our different strengths, interests and callings. It is true that many people can make an incredible difference as local heroes, but those called to help people on the macro-level can do work that is just as necessary and important.

So, local or global? How do we know which is “right”?

Why do we want to change the world?

It might be helpful to check our motivations. Do we actually want to help people or do we just want to become recognized as influential? Since we are all self-interested to some degree, the latter motivation is not necessarily wrong. In fact, your level of influence can be a great way to measure your effectiveness in helping others.

[pullquote]     Trying to save the world is no excuse to neglect those who are around us and who need us from day-to-day.[/pullquote]

But there’s a fine line. You might be finding that you are entering into the world of nonprofits or philanthropy primarily to be recognized as a good person or as the leading voice on poverty or policy. Perhaps you are neglecting the non-influential people around you in an attempt to build relationships with the contacts who have name recognition.

For example, in college I realized that I was pursuing a career in law that I would neither enjoy nor be particularly good at. Though I would have told you that I was doing it to help others through my knowledge of the law (and this was true to an extent), my real motivations were to have the prestige of the law degree and to be able to say that I was helping others. Once I recognized this, I was able to pursue a career path that was better suited to my skills, interests and desire to help people.

How are we going about our good deeds?

What if your motivations really are to help people, but you are still more interested in making a difference on a global scale than a local one? Here are two principles that might help:


The principle of subsidiarity states that problems should be handled by the smallest, most local, least centralized authority that can effectively manage it. The theory is that the more local the authority, the better it will know how to handle the problem.

That means that if someone is really passionate about solving global hunger, it might be most helpful for them to start this effort in their neighborhood instead of focusing overseas. Instead of going into national politics, it might be best to at least start with local affairs. That being said, we still do need people who are passionate about helping on the large scale, but it is especially important for them to approach their work with a willingness to listen to and learn from the people they are trying to serve.

Moral Proximity

I once knew a woman who had a passion for short-term overseas mission trips. She did fantastic work organizing trips, exposing others to the need overseas and building relationships with missionaries. Because of her hectic travel schedule, however, she had very little time to develop relationships with her children—they spent most of their growing up years in the households of family friends.

This brings up the concept of moral proximity: the idea that the more connected we are to someone, the more of an obligation we have to help them. Trying to save the world is no excuse to neglect those who are around us and who need us from day-to-day.

It is good and necessary to want to change the world on a large scale. But unless we take a hard look at our true motivations and the possible unintended consequences of our ideas, we might end up hurting those that we are trying to help, as well as the people who are closest to us.