As a student studying Computer Science in college, I often hear from friends working on various humanitarian projects, and I want to do something myself. But it seems that programmers don't have as many obvious avenues to help out as, say, doctors or teachers. What are some ways in which programmers can put their talent to use for people in poverty?

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    Community Wikis can only be made by those who have high enough reputation now. (Moderators.) Feb 14, 2011 at 5:24
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    You should look into Imagine Cup! imaginecup.com
    – aqua
    Feb 14, 2011 at 7:23
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    I personally love that I work in an industry that attracts people who regard this question so highly. Feb 14, 2011 at 7:26
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    You could donate to Developers Against Poverty: developersagainstpoverty.org
    – user4051
    Feb 14, 2011 at 10:14
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    Get rich and donate your money for the cause, I guess. I don't think software development in specific is very helpful in developing countries (food > software). Maybe the more abstract concepts, for example agile / lean / that kinda thing could be put to use in non-software projects.
    – cthulhu
    Jun 12, 2011 at 20:59

36 Answers 36


Form a coalition, or just a group of programming friends, and make yourself available to small, but effective non-profit organizations. Offer to build them a website for free in your own time, etc. I'm currently building a site for a non-prof to allow people to sponsor educational materials in my free time. The work I'm doing can ultimately educate a village, I haven't left my office. This takes building business relationships with these organisations, so may take time build a rep, but once that's established, you wont fall short of opportunities.



Try to earn as much as possible. Spend ( instead of invest ) as much as possible. If all the people were doing only those two things economy will take care of poverty easily.

Help people to EARN money. It is always shameful to be on receiving end of charity and donation. If you spend it , somebody going to earn it. simple.

If you feel even more want-to-help-poor-people guy. Start A BIG business that can employ lots of people.

Always always let people earn their money instead of give it to them. Preserve their and your pride.

edit: Also never feel guilty about not doing anything for poor people. To me ( and I hope to most other people ) Doing best according to your ability ( whatever it is ) is far better public service than doing something inferior ( in terms of wasted efficiency and time ).

Sorry for not directly answering to use of "programming ability", but basic rules are same, whatever the profession is.

edit: please also read comment which have good discussion on subject. sorry again for drifting off the topic. ( but giving appropriate answer. )

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    The free market will never solve poverty. Nor will other social constructs such as government, of course. The difference is those that support free markets absolve themselves of the human condition known as poverty. At least government acknowledges the condition and tries to help. Feb 15, 2011 at 3:30
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    Free market can solve poverty. Problem is, free market is very hard to stay as such unless strict attention is given, sooner or later some people will try to take unfair advantage of free market <-- which is prime cause of poverty. We need to remove CAUSE of poverty. People do not donate IS NOT the cause of poverty. ( first downvoted comment Ye Ye!!, when everyone agrees its wrong. )
    – iamgopal
    Feb 15, 2011 at 4:42
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    Always always let people earn their money instead of give it to them. Preserve their and your pride. +1 for it.
    – Prasham
    Feb 15, 2011 at 6:03
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    @iamgopal, sorry but I don't drink cold drinks :-) Jokes aside, you seem to mean we should spend money in a targeted way, which I can fully agree with. And I am also a fan of Grameen Bank. However, I don't think loans can resolve basic life quality issues like sanitation - whom do you give a loan to build a well for a village, and who can pay it back (and from what)? So IMHO in this area people still need to donate their money, skills and resources. Feb 15, 2011 at 10:54
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    @peter The problem you define is in public domain ( along with road,law, military ) and that is EXACTLY why we have created government to combine our money ( via taxes, 30% in India :O ) in to public efforts. ( people not paying taxes and government is not using it properly are undesired side effect ). <-- I rather pay money to ensure effectiveness and better use of previously given billions amount of money, instead of ignoring(and forgiving ) non tax paying people and government and starting from scratch.
    – iamgopal
    Feb 15, 2011 at 11:21

It's more of a long-term strategy, but you could teach kids in poverty or in a developing country. If not as a full-time job, then teach programming for an after-school program at a boys/girls club in a poor neighborhood, or simply mentor at-risk kids. If you instill a love of learning, knowledge of programming and other scientific/technical fields, and inspire them to pursue an advanced education generally, you greatly increase the chances that they will end up with a life in which poverty (for themselves and their families) is very unlikely.

How many poor kids spend hours a day on the basketball court or football field hoping to strike it rich but in reality have a 1 in 10,000 chance of doing so and a 9,999/10,000 chance of getting nothing in return? If they spent the same amount of effort learning programming, math, science, etc., they would probably have a 95% chance of being solidly middle class for their whole life. Given decent smarts and hard work, a lot of them could do it, but it's just not an option in life that they see by example or know anyone to guide them toward. You could be the one.


Has no you yet posted a link to hackers for charity? They have a list of volunteer positions that need to be filled, many of which can be done over the web.


Despite the many answers, I feel like I can contribute to this subject - a group has been considering (In a different context) what "Good" means and some of what they have written about is charity.

First, harsh words (That have been posted in other answers as well)

Efficient Charity, by Yvain

In the "Buy A Brushstroke" campaign, eleven thousand British donors gave a total of £550,000 to keep the famous painting "Blue Rigi" in a UK museum. If they had given that £550,000 to buy better sanitation systems in African villages instead, the latest statistics suggest it would have saved the lives of about one thousand two hundred people from disease. Each individual $50 donation could have given a year of normal life back to a Third Worlder afflicted with a disabling condition like blindness or limb deformity..

Most of those 11,000 donors genuinely wanted to help people by preserving access to the original canvas of a beautiful painting. And most of those 11,000 donors, if you asked, would say that a thousand people's lives are more important than a beautiful painting, original or no. But these people didn't have the proper mental habits to realize that was the choice before them, and so a beautiful painting remains in a British museum and somewhere in the Third World a thousand people are dead.

Second, words on what you can do AS A PROGRAMMER that doesn't feel as cold.

Money: the Unit of Caring, by Eliezer Yudkowsky

The bolding underneath is mine, to draw attention to the important point.

There is this very, very old puzzle/observation in economics about the lawyer who spends an hour volunteering at the soup kitchen, instead of working an extra hour and donating the money to hire someone to work for five hours at the soup kitchen.

There's this thing called "Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage". There's this idea called "professional specialization". There's this notion of "economies of scale". There's this concept of "gains from trade". The whole reason why we have money is to realize the tremendous gains possible from each of us doing what we do best.

This is what grownups do. This is what you do when you want something to actually get done. You use money to employ full-time specialists.

Yes, people are sometimes limited in their ability to trade time for money (underemployed), so that it is better for them if they can directly donate that which they would usually trade for money. If the soup kitchen needed a lawyer, and the lawyer donated a large contiguous high-priority block of lawyering, then that sort of volunteering makes sense—that's the same specialized capability the lawyer ordinarily trades for money. But "volunteering" just one hour of legal work, constantly delayed, spread across three weeks in casual minutes between other jobs? This is not the way something gets done when anyone actually cares about it, or to state it near-equivalently, when money is involved.

Third, the thing I actually came here to post:

Purchase Fuzzies and Utilions Separately, by Eliezer Yudkowsky

If I had to give advice to some new-minted billionaire entering the realm of charity, my advice would go something like this:

  • To purchase warm fuzzies, find some hard-working but poverty-stricken woman who's about to drop out of state college after her husband's hours were cut back, and personally, but anonymously, give her a cashier's check for $10,000. Repeat as desired.
  • To purchase status among your friends, donate $100,000 to the current sexiest X-Prize, or whatever other charity seems to offer the most stylishness for the least price. Make a big deal out of it, show up for their press events, and brag about it for the next five years.
  • Then—with absolute cold-blooded calculation — without scope insensitivity or ambiguity aversion — without concern for status or warm fuzzies — figuring out some common scheme for converting outcomes to utilons, and trying to express uncertainty in percentage probabilitiess—find the charity that offers the greatest expected utilons per dollar. Donate up to however much money you wanted to give to charity, until their marginal efficiency drops below that of the next charity on the list.

Obviously, you are not a billionaire (I guess. If you are, thank you for considering charity), but even so, that third quote is applicaple. You want to feel good about being a good person and you want to be a good person. You are allowed to do both - especially if you are more likely to help people if you feel good about helping. The important part, after all, is that people get help.

If you feel that helping people, personally, so you can feel that you are helping, is more likely to happen than you spending that same amount of time earning money to give away, then help personally. The important part is that people get help.

And if anybody, anywhere, ever accuses you of just doing it to feel good? Remember always that you have helped, and they have not.


Write software that helps people communicate freely and efficiently.

Efficient and unhindered communication is the key to a free world with no poverty and pollution? That's what causes dictatorships to fall, and that's why all dictatorships censor?

For example, you could contribute to the Tor Project, or build another helpful communication system like Twitter and Facebook. — You've read about how Twitter, Facebook and video streaming sites have been used in the Arab Spring?

  • @Downvoters would you mind explaining why? I did read/skim through all earlier answers to find out if there was any similar answer and found none
    – KajMagnus
    Jul 25, 2012 at 4:41

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