The Penniless Altruist’s Guide to Saving Lives

“I was sick, and you looked after me.” — Matthew 25:36

So you’re an altruist. You’ve seen the commercials with the sick puppies and sick children asking you to please help. But you’re also broke. You’re a student, maybe, or on a tight budget, or perhaps you already give money to another good cause.

You’re not Hermione. But you can still help. (Photo credit: ursulakm)

You wish you could help, but don’t think there’s much you can do. You’re not a doctor, a scientist, or even a wizard; there’s nothing you can do to cure someone’s heart disease or cancer.

But what if I told you that right now, you can contribute to the health and well-being of a total stranger for free? Guess what: your own body’s already producing several things that would make a difference.

I now present my round-up of 10 free things you can do to heal the world using your own body. All of these things are free, and most are also low-effort and require very little time. How’s that for a win-win situation?

  1. Give blood. The Red Cross hosts periodic blood drives in most cities. They also have physical donor centers where you can drop by any time and make a donation. My husband Jason donates every two months because of his high-demand blood type, and he loves the organization and the experience.
  2. Become an Organ and/or Cornea Donor. If you’re not already an organ donor, here’s instructions on how to join the team. While 95% of Americans support organ donation, only 45% are actually registered. This is a problem, as the waiting list for organs such as kidneys, hearts, livers, and lungs is depressingly long. I love knowing that my last act in life will be to leave a legacy of life for others. While you’re at it, share your donor status on Facebook!
  3. Join the Bone Marrow Registry. I’ve talked about this process ad nauseum because it’s simple, free, and it lets you freakin’ cure someone’s cancer. How cool is that? It’s also one of the simplest things to do on this list as it only takes about 15 minutes to sign up, and the testing process happens by mail.
  4. Donate Cord Blood. This one’s for pregnant ladies only. Many hospitals accept donated umbilical cords containing cells that can cure leukemia the way bone marrow donations do. The best part? The umbilical cord’s just biological waste anyway, so you’re recycling! How cool would it be to give birth and cure cancer, all in the same day? To donate, discuss it with your doctor or midwife and find out if the hospital you’re delivering at accepts donations.
  5. Donate your hair. Several organizations collect hair to make wigs for cancer patients. Locks of Love is the most well-known. I love this option for so many reasons. I think it would make for a fun and awesome activity to do as a family as they can accept any hair of the right length. Kids can do it, and gray hair’s fine too! Just go to the hair dresser when your mane’s long enough and get that ponytail lopped off. See the website for all the details.
  6. Donate your body to science. Similar to organ donation, except the whole body will be used for medical research or for teaching medical students. I worked with human cadavers while learning anatomy, and it was one of the most deeply moving experiences of my life. I am so grateful to people who give this ultimate gift. Now you can’t donate your organs and your body; it’s a one-or-the-other proposition. But there are some good reasons to consider body donation. Perhaps you love the idea of going to med school! Perhaps due to your medical history, your organs wouldn’t be usable for transplants. Also, you usually get a free cremation in the bargain (I’m not one to look down on the benefits!). You can donate directly to universities or through various mediators.
  7. Volunteer for medical studies. If you live near a university, I guarantee that their science and health departments run experiments that need volunteers. Last summer, I participated in a study comparing the way women of different weights metabolize vitamins like folic acid. I hung out in the research lab all day, taking vitamins and watching movies while they collected my data. I made some new friends, too! The best part about volunteering for medical studies is that they often pay you for your time. Make sure you only volunteer through reputable organizations that are accountable to review boards that ensure you’re not doing anything dangerous. The National Institute of Health offers this program if you don’t live near a university.
  8. Donate unused prescription drugs. I cheated; this one doesn’t involve something you make with your own body. Leftover prescription drugs can be recycled and donated for use by sick people who can’t afford them. These programs are regional and vary from state to state. Contact your local Health Department for information.
  9. If you’re able to do any of the above, brag about it. Brag loudly, in the hearing of many people. Brag obnoxiously, until your friends disown you. Share what you’ve done on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you lurk. It sounds strange that tooting your own horn is on my list of altruistic deeds, but seriously, it’s actually quite helpful. We need to normalize donations and overcome what I like to call the “I’ll-do-it-tomorrow hump”. We need to make everyone else jealous so they give it a shot too. That means talking about it lots.
  10. Share this list. Some people will not be able to make the donations on this list because of personal circumstances. That’s completely understandable — don’t feel bad! But one thing you can do is pass on the word. Post this list on your favorite social media, or mention these things to your family and friends.

This list isn’t comprehensive. In fact, if you’ve got more ideas, please share them in the comments below! If I can get another list together I’ll share your ideas in a follow-up post. Also, many of the links I’ve shared only apply to people living in the United States. If you live in another country and can share links to your national programs, please post them. I’d love to add them to this post for everyone’s benefit. What else can you think of that would save a life today?

9 thoughts on “The Penniless Altruist’s Guide to Saving Lives

  1. Rachael
    As a liver and kidney transplant recipient , I want to say a very big Thank You for your organ donation suggestion. I am alive today because a family seven years ago agreed to have their loved one’s organs donated. In my case, the transplant was needed because I have an auto immune issue called PSC. There is a serious organ shortage. Only 1 in 3 liver transplant candidates actually get an organ. The rest die waiting for an organ. What’s really great is that it costs you nothing now. It’s a way to know that after your gone, you have helped other people to live. Thanks again for mentioning it from someone who actually is alive because another person cared.

    1. Thanks, Steve. I’m honored you’ve shared your story, and so thankful to the organ donor who allowed you to post this comment tonight. That’s got me all teary-eyed! I wish more people would consider organ donation; I absolutely agree that it’s the easiest thing in the world considering you can’t take your organs with you, and it can only do good!

      I’ve read a bit about the problems surrounding liver transplants. Apparently livers are fickle to keep alive outside the body, so on top of the long waitlist, lots of donated livers aren’t viable by the time they get to the people that need them. There’s a cool new development in the transplant world right now to solve this problem – check out this nifty article (

      But the best thing will be for more people to join the donor program. Wouldn’t it be cool if enough people joined that getting an organ in a reasonable time frame weren’t an issue?

  2. My wife and I are very strong proponents of organ donation. A heart/lung transplant for our daughter had been a possibility up until recently. We decided the complications involved in a double-transplant such as that far outweighed the possible benefits. But there are enough stories of one person/parents giving the ultimate gift so that I couldn’t imagine not donating. It boggles my mind that there are people who are against it.

    1. Gosh, best wishes for your daughter’s health, Chemistryguy. What a thing to contemplate for a child; my heart goes out to you guys.

      From what I understand, there are some really awful rumors behind the public’s fear of becoming organ donors. Apparently, there’s an urban legend that EMT’s make less of an effort to save people who are organ donors than people who aren’t. Also, some people think that organ donors are agreeing to give organs NOW, instead of just in case of death.

      I may eventually write a post addressing some of these fears directly and debunking the myths. Like you pointed out, it’s such a lifesaving thing to do, and it literally costs a person nothing.

  3. This list is amazing!
    I’ve always felt bad because I can’t donate blood…I’m anemic. But I guess I could always donate my hair…and later my body for medical research….

    1. Hey, no worries! I’m not allowed to give blood either, mainly because the American Red Cross won’t take blood from people who lived in Europe during the “mad cow” years. (Now when I’m in Europe, they’re happy to take my blood!) My husband loooooves to give blood though. I think it’s because they give him cookies afterwards. :-p

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