No time to volunteer? No problem. Give back by going online. It's fast, affordable, and rewarding for the whole family.

By Kelli Grant

Virtual Volunteering

You'd like to pitch in at your local soup kitchen one night a week or offer your services to Meals On Wheels or UNICEF — problem is, you just can't find the time. But go online, and there's a host of ways to give to your favorite charities in minutes. In many cases, you can help out for free or contribute just a few dollars and still reap plenty of satisfaction. "Get enough small donations from lots of people, and big things are possible," says Kathleen McCarthy, director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at the City University of New York. Virtual volunteering is a great way to involve your children in charity, and it's especially important as nonprofits struggle with increased demand from victims of layoffs, foreclosures, natural disasters, and more. Following, easy ways to give back with a few clicks of the mouse.

Go Shopping. Really. Link to your favorite retailer through this virtual mall and a percentage of your purchases will be donated to your favorite cause. With 700 stores and 43,000 charities, there are plenty of choices. Barnes & Noble contributes 3.2 percent, while 1-800-FLOWERS gives 6 percent. Donations come from advertising revenue, so you won't pay a cent more than if you went directly to an e-tailer. Similar to eBay, this Web site has auctions for travel, toys, tickets, and other items that have been put on the block by national and local nonprofit organizations to raise money. You can search by category, charity, or state. Bid on $125 worth of restaurant gift certificates that will benefit the Red Cross in Massachusetts Bay, or on a $100 Macy's gift card to help out the Saint Rita School in Fairfax, California. Four one-day passes to Disneyland, a $264 value, recently went for $150.

Collect your Change You can give as little as $1 at this site, which matches good Samaritans with teachers at cash-strapped K-12 public schools in need of basic supplies like books, paper, pens and pencils, or funding for field trips. Post-donation, you'll receive thank-you notes from grateful students and a class progress report from the teacher. Protect the environment, fight poverty, or promote world peace at this mall-like site tailored for tweens. Choose your charity, and the nonprofit MarkMakers Foundation will forward the donation for you. Give $1 to a broad cause (providing vaccines to children in developing countries) or a weekend's worth of babysitting money to a specific project ($30 covers the adoption and care of an injured seal at the Marine Mammal Rescue Center in Sausalito, California). This Web site pairs donors with grassroots organizations and community-based projects here and abroad — and matches your contributions dollar for dollar. You can buy $35 in supplies for cooking classes at the Homegirl Cafe in Los Angeles to help at-risk Latinas escape the cycle of gangs and violence, or contribute $25 toward a desk-and-chair set for a student in earthquake-ravaged areas of rural China. Sign up for regular updates with this Washington, D.C.-based group, and a tree will be planted in your honor in Mexico, Haiti, Brazil, India, or Australia to support reforestation projects and combat climate change.

Lend a Hand from Your Desk or Laptop Enter a project keyword (like "family" or "environment") and check the "virtual opportunities" box to narrow down a database of 50,000 local, national, and international nonprofits that need your help. One example is In2Books, a mentoring and literacy program that matches a "penpal" adult with a disadvantaged K-12 student, who correspond online about five books they read together during the school year. With this United Nations Volunteers program, you can commit to as little as one hour of virtual work a week — e-mailing press releases, translating documents, drafting proposals — for international charities, based on your skills. One mother and her teenage son, who has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, found people online to donate tennis rackets and soccer balls to a home for AIDS orphans in Zambia.

Make a Microloan Browse profiles of real people in need, like the woman in Mali who wants to start a dressmaking business or a family in Bolivia seeking to increase their potato crop. Then use a credit card or PayPal to make your donation (the minimum is $25), and Kiva's microfinance partners will pool and distribute the funds. Loans don't earn interest (so you won't profit), but you should recoup your investment in six to 12 months, allowing you to use the same money to help someone else in need. This microloan company, a division of eBay, requires at least a $50 loan and a two-year investment, for which you can earn 2 to 3 percent interest.

Pay a Visit, Pay It Forward Each time you search the Web using this free site, you'll generate money for the charity of your choice (there are more than 69,000, from the ASPCA to Ace & TJ's Grin Kids in Charlotte, North Carolina, for special-needs children). GoodSearch donates half of its revenue from advertisers, a penny per search. It adds up: Save Darfur, for example, has netted $8,500 in the last three years. Microsoft's free search site includes nearly one million nonprofits and schools and donates a penny each time you do a search. You can also play games — solving the crossword Flexicon, for example — to earn a quarter for your favorite charity. Breast cancer, child health, hunger, literacy, the rainforest, or animal rescue — choose one or all six, hit the "Click Here to Give — It's FREE" button, and this site donates a portion of its ad revenue to established charities linked with each cause. Last September visitors paid for 216 mammograms, supplied 47,085 books for kids in low-income neighborhoods, and preserved 994 acres of rainforest. You can set up a daily e-mail reminder to visit the site, where a half-dozen clicks takes less than 30 seconds. Quiz yourself on math, vocabulary, geography, and other subjects to rack up charitable contributions on this site. There are different levels for all ages, and for each answer you get correct, the site's sponsors donate 20 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Programme. Last year the program generated enough rice to feed more than two million people.

Donating online is almost as easy as feeding pennies into your piggy bank. Add up the change, and it can make a world of difference.

Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.