How to Give Support Through Mutual Aid—and Why It's Different From Charity

Are social media-driven mutual aid requests a better way to support marginalized people directly, outside of traditional charitable donations? And if so, how can you find a worthy—and safe—cause?

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, mutual aid has joined crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe in the mainstream. And as 2021 draws to a close, more folks are asking themselves whether these social media-driven mutual aid requests are a better way to support marginalized people directly and immediately, outside the structure of traditional philanthropy.

So if learning more about community care is on your New Year's resolutions list, here are some tips for getting started.

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Know that mutual aid is different from charity.

When you start to read about mutual aid, you'll hear the motto "solidarity, not charity." The distinction can feel hard to parse. After all, isn't charity a good thing?

"The idea of mutual aid is built on this idea that all of us at some point in our lives will need help," explains Janice Gassam Asare, an author and organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant. "It might not be monetarily; it might be emotional support, or a time where we are on the side of the road and our phone died."

By providing direct assistance without strings attached, mutual aid seeks to revolutionize the systems that keep us vulnerable. You send a Cash App transfer to someone for their medical bills, knowing that you could one day find yourself without health insurance and in need of similar support.

Traditional charity and philanthropy, while well-intentioned and valid, fundamentally rely on a hierarchy, where organizations and their supporters are above and the "less fortunate" are below. These organizations are asked to make judgments, based on societal standards and the desires of their benefactors, about who among the "less fortunate" is deserving of support, how much, and in what way. And those who receive assistance often must prove not just that they need it, but that they are "virtuous" enough to deserve it.

"Charity can have a negative connotation," adds Gassam Assare. She points to the negative connotations behind phrases such as "charity case." Mutual aid has emerged as a counter to this dynamic; it's assistance that highlights dignity, swapping out a top-down mentality for a shoulder-to-shoulder approach that also acknowledges our collective vulnerabilities in our current systems.

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Start with an inventory of yourself.

So where to begin? As with any new undertaking, especially one that involves both other human beings and involves your finances, it's important to set your intentions and try to come to understand your motivations behind getting involved.

If you've typically engaged in charitable donations through nonprofit organizations or things like tithing through your church, what motivates you to give? How does it make you feel? What attracts you to mutual aid? If you think about the end result, what do you see as the benefits to your neighborhood, your community, the other people, to yourself?

Altruism is largely driven by emotions and colored by human biases such as preferring to support people who are geographically close to us or similar to us in any number of ways. This is a part of human psychology and the way our society functions; there's no use denying it or feeling bad about it. But by holding this in our minds, we can practice a type of mindfulness, through which we can go beyond our common sympathies and cultivate the necessary empathy to broaden our support to those who may, at a first glance, have very different lives from us.

Plus, part of self-care is being financially responsible and understanding one's own limitations. Having set intentions—how often, how much, and why—can ensure that you are able to contribute in a way that feels good for you and therefore can have a sustainable relationship to helping others.

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Connect to existing networks.

If you're not already connected to those in your community who might be engaged in mutual aid efforts, finding them can feel daunting. This is where planning helps.

"The best way to get started is to search for local mutual aid projects in your area, familiarize yourself with the values of these projects, and to take cues from local organizers on how to best plug in," says Miriam Belblidia, co-founder of Imagine Water Works and a long-time mutual aid organizer in Louisiana.

Schedule a chunk of time to find even a single person or organization in your area. Instagram is a great space to spend your time doing research. Folks who are engaged in helping people who are dealing with food scarcity, for example, may be able to connect you to other forms of community care. Is anyone running a community fridge or pantry, a soup kitchen, a physical space like a literal refrigerator, where people can bring food for others to take? Is there a "buy nothing" Facebook group for your neighborhood or area? The chances are that folks who participate in these swap groups may also be connected to other ways to spread resources around.

Send 10 direct messages to folks who follow different mutual aid, community organizing, or other local accounts and politely ask for their thoughts and guidance.

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Remember: Mutual aid lives where you live.

The beauty of mutual aid is that it happens right where you are, with those down the block from you.

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Emma Brennan and a few friends in Washington D.C. got together to help out their neighbor, Trey. Trey needed some extra financial support, so the crew did a little fundraising on instagram. Soon, they realized that what would really benefit Trey, and others who had lost income or were facing medical issues during quarantine, was a consistent and dependable chunk of cash. They got together enough people to send $150 a week to Trey through Cash App.

Slowly they started to expand through referrals in the community. Now in its fourth 15-week cycle, the mutual aid group is supporting 11 individuals with $175 a week, funded by over 100 neighbors.

Brennan and the other organizers volunteer their time to act as the bridge between folks who have need and those who have money to spare. They talk to the recipients regularly. Like most mutual aid organizers, they post the receipts of cash transfers in a private space online so all of those who participate can access that information immediately.

"It's that element of trust; it's community trust," said Brennan. The group knows her, and she knows those receiving aid. If a recipient gets a job, they take themselves off the list and leave space for someone else in need.

It's not unheard of to have folks try to cheat the system to get access to mutual aid in place of folks who might be more deserving. However, most electronic-payment scams come from phishing attempts, not individual requests. And because they prize transparency and immediacy, organizing networks are often quick to report fraud to the community.

Collecting personal and financial information about anybody, but especially those who are already vulnerable, does have some inherent risk. In their guidance for mutual aid organizers Electronic Frontier Foundation advises keeping as little data on recipients as possible and offers guidance on communicating clearly with everyone involved.

Diversity and inclusion expert Dr. Gassam Asare explains that part of the practice of mutual aid is releasing control of expectation, and embracing the idea that people are experts at their own life and needs, whether the needs are rent money, diapers, food, or gas in their car. Even those who take advantage are being let down by traditional systems.

The compassion and flexibility of mutual aid is part of what makes them appealing. "With mutual aid, there's less regulation," Gassam Asare says. That means more flexibility on both ends of any exchange of assistance.

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Size doesn't matter.

Unlike nonprofit fundraising, philanthropy, or really most other parts of our society, the impact of mutual aid isn't judged by size or scale. The focus stays on the relationships and meeting the immediate needs of each individual person. Every act of mutual aid to support a single neighbor matters, because each person's needs and struggles are individually and equally important.

In the end, mutual aid is as much a practice and a mindset as much as it is a way to share resources. So even if the easiest place for you to start is to keep $20 in cash in your pocket to give to a stranger who asks for it, entering the mindset of community care will set you on a path to better support the people around you.

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