Best ways to volunteer and get involved in NYC

Here’s how you can make a difference in your neighborhood, borough, and the greater city.

When it comes to making change at the local level, the smallest actions can spur the biggest changes—and in New York City, where the options for helping your fellow citizens can be downright overwhelming, starting small is often the best in-road to a larger commitment to activism. With that—and the larger desire among our fellow New Yorkers to get involved—in mind, we present these small, but substantial, ways that you can help make NYC a better place.


From your apartment

1. Make calls to your legislators. Regardless of your political affiliation, it’s important to hold your elected officials accountable for the promises that got them in office in the first place. And yes, a phone call is the best way to do it: Calling about important issues—whether it’s something at the federal level or something related just to your neighborhood—will let your local official know that their constituents are engaged and aware, and might just put a fire under them to get things done. The New York Times has more on why this is such a big deal; if you need help finding your local legislators, we’ve got you covered.

2. Donate, don’t discard, your old clothes. We’re as big of devotees of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as anyone, but what do you do with all of those clothes once the Kondo-ing is over? Find an organization in need: Shelters like the Bowery Mission can redistribute clean clothing to homeless New Yorkers. If you’re a woman and have professional duds to discard, give them to Dress for Success. And in the wintertime—when the need for warm clothes is greatest—New York Cares accepts and distributes gently used coats during its annual Coat Drive.

You can also bring them to a GrowNYC Greenmarket, which will either distribute them to places in need or use them for purposes like rags or fiber filling.

3. Recycle. There’s no excuse not to—pretty much anything you might need to dispose of can be recycled in some way. Food scraps? Those can turn into compost. Old electronics, like computers or cell phones? Plenty of organizations, like the Lower East Side Ecology Center and the Department of Sanitation, will take those. Clothes? Covered. Furniture? Yup.

GrowNYC even hosts Stop ’n’ Swap events in every borough, where people can bring small items (games, housewares, books) that they no longer need. (And here’s a refresher on what you can recycle through DSNY, just in case.)

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4. Compost. Helping reduce the amount of waste produced in New York City starts at home—and in your own refrigerator. The NYC Compost Project has food scrap drop-off sites in all five boroughs, and you can use this handy map to locate your closest location. Want to one-up your composting commitment? Consider volunteering at compost sites throughout the city, or purchasing a compost bin for your own backyard (if you have one).

5. Set your Amazon account to donate to a NYC charity. This is one of the simplest things you can do: The AmazonSmile program lets you choose from nearly a million charities, and each time you shop on Amazon, the AmazonSmile Foundation will donate 0.5 percent from the purchase price to the one you picked. At press time, there were literally thousands of New York organizations—the Boys and Girls Club of New York, Gilda’s Club, and the Museum of the City of New York are just a few—in the program, so pick your favorite and do some good the next time you buy something.

6. Stay informed about local news. It’s important to stay on top of national news, but to get a sense of what’s changing in your immediate surroundings, make local papers and blogs a part of your daily media diet. The New York Times is, of course, invaluable, but there’s a seemingly endless number of NYC outlets that can help you stay informed—from hyperlocal blogs (West Side Rag, Welcome2TheBronx, Sheepshead Bites, etc.) to established sources (the newly-merged DNAInfo and Gothamist, the Observer, etc.) and even more. Oh, and Curbed NY, of course.

7. Learn about the city. Knowing the history of New York City—the good, the bad, and the ugly—will help you as you begin to become more involved in activism. There’s no shortage of books devoted to every aspect of the city’s past and present, so no matter your preferred cause—whether it’s fighting for affordable housing, against displacement, or for safer streets—you’ll find something that will help you understand it better.

Need somewhere to start? This list from Curbed will help. Some of our favorites include the obvious—The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Power Broker, Up in the Old Hotel—along with newcomers like The Edge Becomes the Center and The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn.

8. Bring your old electronic equipment to an e-waste recycling center. State and city laws prevent electronic waste from being disposed of with regular waste, but some retailers, like Best Buy and Staples, will accept electronics, along with recycling centers like the Lower East Side Ecology Center.

GrowNYC also holds recycling events throughout the year. If you live in a building, work with your landlord to see if the property qualifies to participate in the Department of Sanitation’s free program, e-cycleNYC.

9. Remember reusable bags. Some fun facts about plastic bags, courtesy of the Department of Sanitation: They’re non-recyclable and end up rotting away in landfills for centuries, we use more than 10 billion of them every year, and disposing of ’em costs New York City a whopping $12 million every year. (Whoa.)

And even though the state put the kibosh on a proposed 5-cent tax that would have reduced the number of bags used each year, that doesn’t mean you can’t cut down on your own use of the landfill-clogging bits of plastic. Stuff a reusable alternative in your purse or backpack (who doesn’t have a bunch of tote bags sitting around their apartment?), or pick one up from one of the Department of Sanitation’s many bag giveaways across the five boroughs.

10. Donate money. You’re not always going to have the time or energy to be involved directly—and that’s okay. If you don’t have time, but do have the financial stability to donate money, do that. It’s especially useful to donate to local nonprofits that may not get as much national attention as organizations like the ACLU, but need funding to continue their work in New York’s communities.

In your neighborhood

11. Pick up a piece of trash. Don’t be a litterbug—that’s obvious. But it’s also good to take things a step further: Pick up a piece of litter that’s floating around. We promise it won’t kill you. If you really want to make an impact, volunteer with organizations like Love Your Block, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), or NYC Parks to pitch in with efforts to keep our city beautiful.

12. Get to know your neighbors. New Yorkers may have the unfortunate (and undeserved) reputation of not being particularly friendly, but that doesn’t need to hold true—especially in your building. It takes as little effort as baking a batch of cookies to let your neighbor know that there’s a friendly face close by.

Don’t be afraid to take the first step, and know that your neighbor is probably feeling just as awkward as you are. If that goes well, consider going a step further: Organize a potluck for your floor or your building, depending on how much space you have.

13. Organize a block party. What better way is there to get to know your neighbors than by bringing them together at a big, fun hoopla? Get a permit from the city, spread the word, and get planning.

14. Shop at your local Greenmarket. Yes, going to Trader Joe’s may be more convenient (though is it really?), but there are plenty of benefits to shopping at your local Greenmarket. Not only will you choose from foods that are fresher and healthier (and, in many cases, less expensive than you’d find at a chain grocer), you’ll also support small family farms who work hard to provide the city with access to locally grown, seasonal products. Not sure how to find a Greenmarket near you? Start here.

15. Support small businesses… Too many of the city’s independent shops have been forced to shutter due to competition from larger corporations, rising rents, and dwindling clientele. Supporting local businesses keeps the city from turning into a huge shopping mall and helps communities flourish. And when possible, patronize businesses owned by women, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ New Yorkers—because New York’s diversity is one of the many things that makes it great.

16. …and don’t forget to nominate them for NYC’s Love Your Local initiative. Most New Yorkers have their favorite corner deli, or the coffee shop they stop at before their morning commute. And now, you can send some extra love to those businesses. The city’s Department of Small Business Services recently launched a program that lets you add your favorite local business to a citywide map; some of those can qualify for grants to make improvements to their store or get expert advice.

17. Attend neighborhood meetings. The best way to find out about the goings on in your neighborhood is to attend the dozens of public meetings organized each month by your local community board. They are easy enough to find on the boards’ websites, and you’ll soon discover that you might be one among many trying to get more green space or stop a huge development from overwhelming your neighborhood. Your voice can truly make a difference in what happens around your home.

18. Join your local community board. One of the best ways to effect change in your neighborhood is to become a member of your local community board—all it takes is reaching out to your City Council member or borough president. Board members serve one-year terms, or staggered two-year terms; they typically reside in or have a business in the neighborhood and are appointed by the borough president. Check out this handy explainer for all the details.

19. Request a tree for your block. Studies have shown that living near an abundance of green space can have a measurable impact on your overall happiness. And New York City’s reputation as a concrete jungle doesn’t mean that you can’t reap those benefits—the Parks Department’s “Request a Street Tree” program lets anyone ask for a tree to be planted on their block, provided it’s not being requested for private property. (And once your tree arrives, don’t forget to take care of it!)

Along your route

20. Smile at people. New Yorkers have a reputation for being abrasive, so help shake the stereotype in a way that’s free and only takes a second: Smile at people. You don’t have to grin at everyone who passes by—and you definitely don’t have to listen to low-level street harassers—but sometimes, a smile and a hello to the cashier at your favorite coffee shop, or the person waiting behind you in line, can brighten their day and make you feel like a better person in the process.

21. Be kind to the homeless. Though it’ll take a massive effort to end to homelessness in New York City, there are small things that you can do to empower those who need help. The first thing is to remember that people become homeless for myriad reasons—so leave the stereotyping or judgmental attitudes behind.

Help out in small ways, like donating to organizations that combat homelessness in New York (such as Coalition for the Homeless or Housing Works). If you have more time to invest, volunteer at a shelter, or simply reach out to emergency services if you see someone in need of help. (The city discourages giving money to panhandlers, but we’re not going to tell you not to do that, too.)

22. Patronize the places that give New York its flavor. Every time a beloved New York City institution closes—places like Edison Cafe, St. Mark’s Bookshop, or the Stage Restaurant—many inevitably lament the fact that they didn’t frequent those places more often. So this one is obvious: Ensure that the businesses that give New York its character stick around by actually patronizing them. Don’t just say you’re going to get pizza at Di Fara, or pick up your next subway read from Three Lives & Company—actually do it, and help keep mom and pops, an essential part of the fabric of NYC, in business.


23. Give someone directions. Sometimes the simplest thing you can do to make New York a better place is to make someone feel more welcome here. One easy way to do that? Give a tourist directions. (How do you find them? Look for the folks with a map who seem lost—it’s that easy.) It’ll make you feel better—we promise—and it’ll show those unfamiliar with our fair city that New York values are the best values.

24. Make a Little Free Library. Creating a Little Free Library is an easy way to promote neighborliness, curiosity, and literacy in your community. The Little Free Library website gives step-by-step instructions about how to start this take-one, give-one book exchange in your neighborhood: For starters, pick a high-trafficked spot and designate someone to look after the library. Want to know where else in New York, or the world, there are other Little Free Libraries? Check out the world map.

25. Create a pop-up park for PARKing Day. PARKing Day is about reclaiming space in the city allotted for cars and other forms of private transportation for more equitable use as a public park—even if only for two hours. During PARKing Day, on-street metered parking spaces are transformed (with an okay from the city) into an outdoor respite. How you use and decorate your PARKing Day space is up to you—be creative!

26. Document the city. Not everyone is going to become the next Humans of New York, but one of the best ways to get to know the city—and your fellow New Yorkers—is to start snapping photos. Even better, share them on Instagram, where there are thousands of photographers bonding over their shared love of the five boroughs. Once you start snapping pictures of everyday life, there’s no telling what you’ll find or who you’ll meet.

27. Familiarize yourself with a part of NYC that you don’t know. One of the best ways to feel more connected to the five boroughs is to explore everything they have to offer, from the big touristy stuff to the tiny neighborhoods in the outer reaches of the city. Even if you think you know NYC well, there’s bound to be a spot you’ve never visited before—so take yourself on a trip within the city limits.

Go to the end of a subway line and walk around, or explore a park that you’ve never been to before. You’ll come away from that journey having learned something new, and with a greater appreciation for this huge, wonderful city.

In your community

28. Make a point to volunteer regularly. There are myriad ways to pitch in to make a better New York, but if giving your time is your tool of choice, consider becoming a regular volunteer. When an in-need organization can count on ongoing support, it (and you!) can achieve more.

We Are New York Values is a great place to start sniffing out a volunteer opportunity, with organizations supporting everything from LGBTQ rights to police reform. NYC Service also connects New Yorkers to volunteer opportunities across a wide swath of causes and locations.

29. Mentor a young New Yorker. “Everyone has a story to tell, and by mentoring, you are giving back and helping someone in a direct, impactful way. The voices of our most vulnerable are often unheard, or worse, silenced. You can change that. One way to do this is to mentor the next generation of women writers.

“When young women are supported and encouraged to find the confidence to share their stories, they are empowered, and we in turn are empowered as a society. Now more than ever, it’s crucial that we mentor the next generation of women writers and showcase the voices that are often not heard, or worse, silenced. Our young women are a force—they can change minds, heal communities, and impact the world.” — Maya Nussbaum, founder, Girls Write Now

30. Be a poll worker on election day. The most basic way to get involved in the political process is to show up and vote, but if you’re looking to level up for forthcoming elections, consider volunteering to work the polls. The city makes the poll worker application process pleasantly pain free—you can do it from your couch—and the requirements are minimal: you must be over 18, a New York City resident, and in particular cases, a registered New York City voter. The same goes for the equally important job of interpreting at the polls, which, of course, requires dual-language fluency.

31. Offer your professional services to an organization in need. Put your skill set to use at places aside from your work. Are you a lawyer? Offer your services pro bono to organizations in need, like Immigration Equality, which is seeking help fighting for the rights of New York’s immigrant community. Oh, you’re a writer? There are organizations that need your support, too. [LINKS?] It doesn’t matter what you do—you’re likely to find a group that can use your services.

32. Help out at an adult literacy program. Organizations like the Brooklyn Public Library and Literacy Partners give you a plethora of opportunities to promote adult literacy. BPL lets you plan lessons and facilitate small groups for people learning to read and write, and with Literacy Partners you can create English conversation groups or do administrative work, like taking photographs at events organized by the group.

33. Spend time with older New Yorkers. New York’s senior population is growing larger every year, and there are a number of ways to help make an older person’s life better. The city’s Department for the Aging has several volunteer programs, and Visiting Neighbors pairs elderly New Yorkers with friendly folks who help by grocery shopping, card- and letter-writing, or simply sitting and chatting with someone for a few hours. That last one is easy to do at home, too: If you have an older neighbor, check in with them regularly and let them know you care.

34. Volunteer with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. According to a 2013 report by the Department of Planning, more than 37 percent of New York City residents are foreign born. It’s more crucial now than ever that New Yorkers of all backgrounds support each other, and one big way to do that is by volunteering with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

MOIA volunteers do everything from provide interpretation services at community events to help foreign-born New Yorkers become a part of the city’s municipal ID program, which allows cardholders to access important public municipal buildings and even get free admission to some of the city’s leading cultural attractions.

35. Vote local. “After the election and the uncertainty that came with it, people are really searching for ways to be politically active, but can find the path forward overwhelming. That’s why I co-founded Hello Voter: to help people learn more about how government works and how to be more engaged and informed voters. It’s really important to know what’s going on in your community and to hold your elected officials accountable. Also, check if your New York City council member takes part in participatory budgeting—it’s a great way to engage in direct democracy that has a real impact in your neighborhood.” — Preeti Sodhi, executive director of Spaceworks and co-founder of Hello Voter

36. Volunteer at a local animal shelter. You might not be ready to adopt a pet, but there several other ways to help the in-need animals of New York City. The Mayor’s Alliance lists volunteer opportunities at approximately 150 shelters across the city, while Animal Care and Control has need for volunteers who can do anything from exercising with animals to assisting in adoption counseling. If you don’t have a ton of time, you can volunteer at one of the ASPCA’s centers for just eight hours per month or less.

On your commute

37. Take public transportation. “For the first time in almost a decade, New York City subway ridership dipped last year. If you think cheating on the MTA every once in a while doesn’t matter, consider this: Vehicular transportation has now replaced coal plants as the fastest-growing contributor to the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, and a new study revealed that the 50,000 rideshare cars on New York streets every day are actually making New York City traffic worse. Be part of the solution: go underground, grab a CitiBike, or better yet, just walk.” Alissa Walker, urbanism editor, Curbed

38. Give up your seat on the subway. Subway commutes are often the stuff of nightmares during rush hour, what with constant delays and feeling of being smushed into someone’s armpit for the better part of an hour. But for those who have mobility issues, are elderly, or are pregnant, that frustration is magnified—so listen to the MTA, do the right thing, and give up your seat if someone needs it more than you. Good subway karma will come back around to you in the end.

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39. Ride a bike. Biking in New York may seem daunting at first, but there are a plethora of organizations out there to help newbies get started, including Bike New York and Bicycle Habitat. The perks of cycling are endless—you’re getting exercise, more cyclists make the roads safer, etc.—and given the number of bike clubs and events in the city (like the upcoming Five Boro Bike tour), you’re bound to make new friends.

40. Obey traffic laws. Cars that swerve into bike lanes or don’t watch out for two-wheeled commuters definitely deserve to be called out and ticketed. Bikers who ignore rules don’t help the cause for better bike lanes and better enforcement. Pedestrians should pay attention while crossing busy streets. Everyone: Follow the rules of the road.

41. Get involved in making New York City transit better. Don’t just complain about how much those commutes suck—do something that might help make it better. Some things you can do: Join the Riders Alliance, which is fighting for discounted MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, among other issues; attend community meetings focused on transit issues in your neighborhood (like the forthcoming L train shutdown); and keep pressuring elected officials to make necessary improvements to the subway system.

We can’t promise change will happen immediately—did you see how long it took for the Second Avenue Subway to get built?—but at least you’ll know you tried.

42. Sign or create a Transportation Alternatives petition. TransAlt is one of the biggest organizations fighting for safer streets—so help them get more visibility by signing (and promoting!) petitions for some of its members’ campaigns, including ones for protected bike lanes and “complete streets” in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

43. Watch out for your fellow New Yorkers on the street. “Sidewalks and those who use them are not passive beneficiaries of safety or helpless victims of danger,” wrote great American urbanist Jane Jacobs. When we’re out and about in the city, we’re not just getting from point A to point B—we’re what Jacobs calls “eyes on the street.” By virtue of our very presence, we’re helping keep each other safe.

With a group

44. Start a virtual food drive. In the 21st century, donating food doesn’t have to mean directly delivering groceries and nonperishables to the nearest community kitchen, though that’s always a welcome and needed gesture. The Food Bank for New York City has now made it easier than ever to donate food and full meals with its virtual food drive program. Either start your own or launch one for your company, and invite your friends and coworkers who are able to pitch in by simply sharing a link.

45. Help clean up your local park. The Parks Department’s It’s My Park initiative allows New Yorkers to spruce up their local parks in several ways. You can work with the Parks Department to volunteer members from your school or organization for a clean-up at your park. In addition, you can become a project leader to spearhead cleaning efforts, or volunteer at the dozens of upcoming clean-up events being organized around the city.

46. Lend a helping hand at one of the city’s urban farms. While big rooftop farms like Brooklyn Grange and Eagle Street Rooftop Farms tend to get most of the press, there are many smaller ones operating throughout the city to provide food and community services to underserved neighborhoods. East New York Farms, for example, has three farms throughout Brooklyn, bringing fresh produce to an area recognized as a food desert—and they have volunteer opportunities if you want to help. Same goes for Added Value’s farms in Red Hook and La Finca Del Sur in the Bronx.

47. Become a member of a local CSA. Another great way to support local farmers is to join one of the many CSAs operating throughout the city. Pay a fee up front and get a year’s worth of fresh, seasonal produce—your share will be doled out at regular intervals, and many CSAs have convenient pick-up locations in all five boroughs. Just Food has everything you need to get started, and if you’re worried about using all of that produce, find a couple friends to split the share with.

48. Host a letter-writing party. Being an activist doesn’t have to be difficult — it can even be fun. If there’s an issue you feel strongly about, it’s more than likely you’re not the only one, and a letter-writing party is a great way to organize your community for a positive cause.

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49. Join your local community garden. Got a green thumb, but no backyard in which to use it? That’s what community gardens are for. According to GreenThumb, the division of the Parks Department that runs the city’s local gardens, there are more than 600 of these spaces throughout the city, running the gamut from tiny neighborhood-run spaces to large, well-known operations.

Find one near you and get familiar with the folks who run it—as GreenThumb notes, “each garden is unique in how it is organized and run and the membership process reflects that. Overall, it requires patience and willingness to learn from citizen volunteers who have been stewarding gardens over the last 30 years.”

50. Show up. “When people come together—especially in times of great need—they can do extraordinary things. I saw this with my own eyes after Hurricane Sandy. Now more than ever, we simply need people to show up. Whether it’s to protest and rally together or simply to wash the dishes at a local soup kitchen.

“This is the time to find at least one thing that deeply reflects your values and taps into your passion. We need to use these moment to elevate each other—because we need to resist great harm—especially for those more vulnerable than ourselves. But together, I believe we can succeed and, in fact, create the more compassionate and just New York City we deserve.” — New York City Council member Brad Lander

via Curbed NY

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