Everyone can make a difference for their own community and other communities around the world – but it can be daunting to get more involved if you do not know where to start. This is an initial reading list for humanitarians, volunteers, and activists. Get inspired!


How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service, by Ram Dass & Paul Gorman

Everyone around the world is asked, daily, to help meet the needs of another. From friends to beggars to co-workers, everyone is seeking the time, resources, or emotional support of others. While most of us take the time to do what we can, a lot of us worry we are giving too much. Can you handle the emotional burden? Can you keep up financially? Do you have the energy to add more to your to-do list? Are you choosing to help in a way that is effective? This book tells true stories of compassion and change, and uses these stories as well as advice to help steer you through these waters. It employs psychology, spirituality, and common sense to help you listen to yourself and to the voices of those you are helping, and to connect with others on a deeper level…not just by doing, but by being who you are.


The Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business by Graham Hancock

Each year more than $60 billion is spent globally on foreign aid. Assistance has and will continue to make a difference in the lives of many. However, there is a dark side. International aid does not always help, sometimes it does great harm. This book uncovers and discusses the shortcomings of aid, from political corruption to inefficiency in organizations. While the book is a little dated and written by a disillusioned author, it is an essential and unflinching read for understanding that we have responsibilities to ensure that the funds we give to charity are empowering communities and helping them become more, rather than less, self-reliant.


Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others, Do Work that Matters, and Make Smarter Choices about Giving Back by William MacAskill

This book centers around the idea of people going into the realms of charity, philanthropy, and humanitarianism motivated by emotions, and assumptions, rather than data. Good intentions are wonderful, but can be misguided. This book speaks to a practical approach, backed by data, in order to make an enormous impact with our work, regardless of resources. When you start with evidence and careful reasoning, and then use the heart to motivate, the ability to achieve results increases exponentially. The author’s background is in economics rather than altruism or NGO’s, which leads to a few spurious conclusions and a lack of broader perspective, but the thought process outlined in the book is valuable for any person wanting to help others effectively.


Practical Ethics by Peter Singer

On questions from individual carbon footprint to the ethics of buying luxuries when others can’t afford food, this book is the classic introduction to applied ethics. Found in classrooms around the world, this text’s provocative questions are just as important to people who are thinking deeply about the ways that he or she is currently living. The arguments are provocative, and some find the book’s ideas polarizing, however each position that Peter Singer takes is well-reasoned and explained thoroughly. The ethics of daily living are often unexamined, and can cause friction for those that are trying to do good in their lives. This book is often cold, devoid of spirituality, religion, or upbringing as a means to determining decisions, but is invaluable for helping the reader think deeply about the effects of one’s own life.


How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein

If you are looking to create a future with meaning, this book is essential reading. With real-world stories of entrepreneurs looking to impact change in the world, this book is inspiring and educational. If you are unfamiliar with social entrepreneurship, this book is a perfect crash course. If you are familiar, this book’s real-life anecdotes (focused on companies who aim to aid education, health, protection, and access to electricity and technology) are the perfect motivation tool to get your own endeavor up and running. Though not as much a how-to as the title would imply, there is a well-balanced list of resources for potential social entrepreneurs and mapping of the examples given in the book.


Still looking for more? Here are some additional titles:

The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically by Peter Singer

Band-aid for a Broken Leg: Being a Doctor with No Borders (and Other Ways to Stay Single) by Damien Brown

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder

The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War by Conor Foley

Strategic Giving: The Art and Science of Philanthropy by Peter Frumkin

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow