03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Help People More Effectively With One Question

When we decide to give back, many of us want to do something that will allow us to share our passions and expertise. In my case, I'm passionate about storytelling. I believe every person in this world has the right to have his or her voice heard and that the greatest and most troubling stories are too little reported in mainstream media.

A lot of other people believe that too -- at my last count, there were two dozen grassroots or international organizations that actively produce and promote stories in tandem with people living in conflict zones and developing countries.

In fact, while covering nonprofit news, I've realized that there's an organization to address almost every cause. It's comforting to know that the diversity of passions in this world can result in a wide range of opportunities to help others and benefits for those less fortunate. But, like me, you may feel overwhelmed or spoiled for choice with the ways in which you can give back.

I believe the answer to finding your best way to help and the organization to support it is a combination of finding what you're good at and then asking the people you're serving what they need the most.

Simple, I know. But nonprofits (and just nice people) can often let their enthusiasm distract them from the basic needs of others that must be met.

This was the case of two American brothers who started a nonprofit to help impoverished, rural communities in Nicaragua. In 2004, Mathias Craig, an MIT graduate and a self-proclaimed "huge fan of windmills," decided to combine his passion for engineering and doing good by starting a business with his brother Guillaume. The company, blueEnergy would plant wind turbines along the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, where 80 percent of the population lacked electricity. According to PRI"s "The World," the venture was technically an enormous success. Communities that had never seen electricity before could now cook and do chores in the evening.

But while the people the turbines served were grateful for the electricity, the Craigs weren't prepared for the side effect of the new technology: a burgeoning obsession with watching TV. Locals used the limited electricity the turbines provided to catch their favorite soap operas and then spent their limited savings to buy new television sets.

When I heard this story for the first time, I smacked my forehead in frustration. However, in the Craigs' case, the brothers learned an important lesson in how to provide a truly helpful service to others: ask people what they want. The brothers have since broadened their efforts to alleviate poverty in Nicaragua by systematically addressing specific issues in each community they serve.

Talking to people isn't just about being compassionate. If it were, then companies wouldn't do focus groups or market research.

But it's an important step I believe is often overlooked in our best plans to help the world. We all want to share our passions and expertise with others, and some of us build big plans and elaborate campaigns to capture the imagination of our communities and fill the needs of others. But, taking the time to assess a need holistically can provide drastically better results in making a person's life better.

That isn't to say that you should put the passion you'd like to share aside or change the mission of a nonprofit to provide other necessities. Rather, it is the idea of remaining aware of a person or community's whole needs and finding the people or partner organizations that can compliment your abilities. It also means sharing resources and best practices between nonprofits within a similar genre of expertise or within the same community.

By being smart in the way we help, we can save time and provide more services to those who need them. By offering what we can and then tailoring how we help by listening to what else people need, we can effect change more efficiently.

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