11/04/2010 05:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In Tough Economic Times, Consider Serving Others By Going on a 'Donation-Vacation'

In 1960, a billion people made up the industrialized world while double the number, two billion, comprised the developing world. The economic gap between these two "worlds" was quite large. For instance, people in the industrialized world were educated, healthy and well-off and as Professor Hans Rosling notes, their aspiration was to buy a nice car. Buy a Volvo and you "made it" as a middle-class European. At the same time, the average family in the developing world aspired to buy a new pair of shoes or scrounge up enough food to get itself through the week.

If the way we commute is any indication of status, in this world the "have's" aspired to drive comfortably, while the "have-nots" aspired to walk comfortably.

Fast forward 50 years. The global population has doubled since 1960. Those in the West now aspire to fly rather than drive. Today middle-class Europeans "make it" when they can afford expensive yearly vacations to remote destinations. Nowadays owning a car is considered a right, not a privilege by almost all middle-class teenagers in the Western world. I should know, since I was one of those kids. Yet, there still remain two billion people who are unable to obtain consistent nutrition. And, shockingly, while many in developing nations such as China now aspire to own cars much like their 1960s European counterparts, the world's two billion poor still "make it" when they are finally able to obtain food, clothing and shelter.

As time has passed, the gap between rich and poor has continued to grow with the wealthy amassing even more wealth and the poor continuing to live in squalor. Similarly, as the world's population has grown, the number of poor has not lessened.

In the context of foreign aid and individual donations, this means that those who are able to give have a greater obligation to contribute than ever before and, at the same time, an increased ability to effect change in a variety of non-traditional, non-financial ways. Disposable incomes, whether large or small, as well as flexible work schedules allow individuals to travel to poorer parts of the world and volunteer their hours rather than merely donate cash. Middle-class Americans, especially the young, are increasingly able to take paid vacations and sabbaticals from work -- a luxury few of the world's poorest can afford.

To date, one of my most memorable experiences was spending my last few weeks of law school summer break volunteering in Biloxi, Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While there, I helped deliver supplies, tear down damaged buildings and impart legal advice to those whose lives had been devastated by the hurricane. A "starving student," I did not have deep pockets but was far from destitute; while I had little cash to donate, I did have time. Beyond being a memorable experience, my "donation-vacation" in Mississippi set me on the path to a career dedicated to public service and solidified friendships I keep to this day.

So, in a time of "donor fatigue" and amid post-election talk of the grim economic outlook, it behooves us to step back and reexamine the relative wealth we enjoy and how best to put it to use during tough times. Short-term, labor-intensive charity work done with proper oversight and planning often effects lasting change, imparts knowledge to developing communities, lessens dependence on foreign aid and builds bridges of understanding and friendship between world cultures.