Refugees, poverty, hunger and disease.
Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and wars.
Every year brings its share of needs. Most usher in catastrophes as well. Sometimes disasters hit in such waves of devastation that the world can’t get a moment to catch its breath. In 2005, for instance, while Southeast Asia was still reeling from the tsunami that killed almost a quarter of a million people, Hurricane Katrina plowed a huge swath through southern Mississippi and Louisiana, wiping out the city of New Orleans. Right on Katrina’s heels, an earthquake in Pakistan’s Kashmir region crushed forty thousand people and left many thousands more hungry and homeless to face a freezing winter. All that took place against a backdrop of atrocities in Sudan, war in Iraq, advancing HIV/AIDS infections and . . . well, you get the picture.
In such years, the media pour forth emotional pleas for help, and our mailboxes overflow. We are asked to donate and donate again and again and again.
People listen to the pleas. And they respond. In that one catastrophic year alone, Americans opened their wallets and gave close to five billion dollars for disaster relief. And, according to the Giving USA Foundation, as usual the bulk of charitable donations came not from the wealthy, but from individuals who chipped in their fifty or hundred or two hundred dollars. Folks like you and me.
“I’d like to support a lesser-known project. I think the big charities already get a lot of coverage.” -- RACHEL M.
What happens when calamities strike, one on top of the other, when the urgency of disaster threatens to drown out the cry of everyday drought, starvation, poverty and disease? Donor fatigue. At least that’s what some frustrated fundraisers tell us. So do newspaper and television reporters who periodically report on the plight of charities forced to cut their services and lay off workers because people have reached their emotional limit.
“They say the Lord loves a cheerful giver, but this giver’s becoming less cheerful.” -- EIGHTY-SEVEN-YEAR-OLD WOMAN TO A REPORTER FROM THE RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH ABOUT RECEIVING 260 REQUESTS FOR HOLIDAY CONTRIBUTIONS
Others insist it isn’t donor fatigue at all. People simply run out of money. Pockets are only so deep.
There is another possibility, of course. Perhaps the real problem is donor disappointment. These days, fewer and fewer of us are willing to simply write out a check and hand it over. Regardless of the emotional appeal, more of us look suspiciously at any place asking for our dollars and inquire, “Just exactly how much of my money would actually reach the people in need?”
Not a bad question.
After Hurricane Katrina, it was estimated that fully two-thirds of all Americans contributed to the relief effort. Within the first weeks alone, over half a billion dollars poured in to charities aiding victims of the flood. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Americans’ confidence that their money was actually making a difference plunged to less than 25 percent. People tossed in their money, all right, but they rarely saw evidence that it was helping in any tangible way.
“I like to be generous, but I want to know for sure where my money is going. I want to know it’s really helping someone.” -- BONNIE S.
So how much trust do Americans place in charities as a whole? A recent New York University study found the following:
This is not surprising, what with all the charity scandals and scams making headlines these days. No one wants his or her hard-earned money to be misused. Even more, no one wants to feel taken in by grabby fundraisers.
“I seldom give, because I have too many questions.” -- BEVERLY W.
In Cambodia, I encountered a man who works for a U.S. government agency. When I commented that I would dearly love to discover that 90 percent of the money donated actually went to the needy, he snorted and said, “Ninety percent go to the people? Hah! More like 90 percent is wasted. The people are lucky to get 10 percent!” Not a statistic, to be sure, but an uncomfortable sign of widespread disillusionment, even among those deep in the trenches.
A common response to pleas for charitable giving is, “But the needs are overwhelming, and I can’t do everything!” Of course not. No one can. Not even Bill and Melinda Gates, with all their resources. And yet . . .
Jesus commanded us to be compassionate and merciful and to help those in need. Throughout his ministry, he had much to say about the poor and what our response toward them should be. He went so far as to state that when you feed, clothe or minister to “one of the least of these brothers of mine,” you do it for him (Matthew 25:37-40).
Sounds as though relief and care for the poor should be near the top of a Christian’s agenda, doesn’t it?
“Charity—giving to the poor—is an essential part of Christian morality. . . . If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small.” -- C. S. LEWIS
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, people suffered terribly— even in the United States, with all the resources, agencies and infrastructure of the richest nation in the world. A year later, little progress had been made toward rebuilding the area. Just imagine, then, the effect disasters have on countries with no means to evacuate survivors or resettle people and no ability to meet their basic needs. Imagine what famine and war and poverty do in countries with absolutely no food or money to spare.
Yet simply feeling bad (or worse yet, guilty) about problems we didn’t cause or situations we can’t change won’t make life better for anyone. Our charge is to act in constructive ways, to get involved in actively doing good. If we are to be effective in the face of worldwide misery, it’s imperative that we think and act creatively.
“The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But . . . the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” -- MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
For over fifteen years, my sister Jo Jeanne crafted beautiful, handmade porcelain dolls. She had her own kiln for firing the heads and bodies. By the time she finished her painstaking work and put away her paintbrushes and sewing box, she had wonderful creations with silky hair and eyes that opened and closed, and they were dressed in handmade costumes. Everyone in the family received gifts of Jo Jeanne’s lovely dolls. Before long, she started selling them at doll shows and through special orders.
Then Jo Jeanne began to show signs of multiple sclerosis. Inevitably the disease affected the fine motor skills she needed to make her dolls. When I visited Jo Jeanne before Christmas one year, she told me wearily that she had just finished the last doll show she would ever do. Her kiln was up for sale. “I was afraid I wouldn’t even make it through this Christmas season,” she said. “I’ve been working nonstop for two months, and I’m absolutely exhausted.” Then her face brightened as she added, “But I made more money than ever before!”
Now, that really stumped me. Jo Jeanne had never been driven by money. So in as circumspect a way as possible, I asked her, “What gives?”
“Subhas Sangma,” she said.
Seeing my perplexed look, she said, “Come on, let me show you.”
With a whole new wave of energy, my sister led me to her sewing room. There on the bulletin board, amid the patterns and fabric swatches, was a snapshot of a simple man in a white shirt. He was a pastor in Bangladesh, she explained, and for the past fifteen years, through a group called Partners International, she had donated all the proceeds from her doll business to his support.
“I can never go as a missionary. Someone else will have to be my hands and feet. I’ll be the sender.” -- JO JEANNE B.
“But he and his wife are getting older, and they can’t walk so many miles between villages in the beating sun and pouring rain,” Jo Jeanne said. “They really need bicycles. My prayer was to earn enough money this Christmas to give Subhas Sangma one good last gift and then have enough left over to buy bicycles for him and his wife. And I did it!”
That was the first time I’d ever heard of Partners International. Or of the possibility of developing a long-term relationship with a person who spoke a different language and lived in a faraway country. Or of the idea of one ordinary person actually effecting a change in the life of someone she most likely would never meet.
“Every Christmas Day we sit down and ‘spend’ some money in Partners International’s gift catalog. Just last week Mom said, ‘I wonder what happened to the family we got the goat for last year?’” -- CAROLINE P.
It was several years later that I was given my first Partners International charitable gift catalog. In fact, it was the first time I’d ever seen such a catalog. I had great fun looking over the array of gift possibilities. What a concept! Just plunk down twelve dollars, and in the name of my teacher friend, a child in China would get a chance at a future. Or for eleven dollars I could give the gift of fortified milk, and for the first time in his life a malnourished child in Sudan would go to bed without his tummy aching with hunger. Or . . . yes, there it was. For $140, I could buy a bicycle for a pastor in Bangladesh.
“I believe that if you show people the problem and you show them the solutions they will be moved to act.” -- BILL GATES
I was hooked. Since the day I thumbed through that first catalog, I’ve collected gift catalogs from many organizations. The variety of gifts available is truly amazing. They run the gamut from cuddly toy lambs that play “Jesus Loves Me” (Samaritan’s Purse, $4) to tuberculosis medicine for a patient in North Korea (Partners International, $7 per month) to two thousand fish to stock a village pond (World Concern, $20) to a library in a box (World Relief, $100) to twelve months of an Animal of the Month (World Vision, $3,690).
“I love doing this! I donated a dozen chickens from the Samaritan’s Purse gift catalog in my dad’s name last Christmas. He used to keep chickens.” -- J. C. D.
Maria Elena, whose son Ruben has Down syndrome, was overjoyed to find the perfect donor gift: sponsorship of a child with disabilities in North Africa. “I can’t imagine what life would be like for Ruben without all the opportunities he has here,” she said. “I want to do something to help a child get out of the back room and into a life of hope.” Ahhh, right there is the strength of catalog donations: they allow people to tap into whatever it is that that touches their hearts.
“For my birthday, my sister donated a pig to a Chinese family and she named it Joe. She wants to go to China and find Joe!” -- JOE K.
Not all donor catalogs are alike, of course. Some are specialized; others are more general. Some are faith-based; others are not. Some have unique sections, such as “Give Green,” an earth-friendly part of Partners International Canada’s catalog. Some include specific offerings for special events, such as Heifer International’s “Joy to the World” selection, designed for company holiday parties, and its “Milk Menagerie,” billed as a wonderful alternative appreciation gift for clients, customers and business associates, or World Concern’s section “Corporate Opportunities.”
Erik, a student, received notification of a gift of a year’s education for a student in India given in his name. Tobias, a landscape specialist, had rice seedlings donated to a poor Cambodian family in his name.
Catalogs can also help parents build giving hearts in even very young children. This was exactly the goal of John and Tauji when they involved their five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter in choosing their family’s donations. “The problem was getting Eric to stop,” Tauji said. “He wanted everything!” Although Eric was especially attracted to a boat (that looked like an awful lot of fun), they finally settled on animals for families in China and Cambodia, and they sponsored a street child in Senegal.
“It was a great beginning,” Tauji said. “But next year we want to do a lot more. Not just at Christmas, but all through the year.”
Some of the catalogs, such as those offered by Samaritan’s Purse and Partners International, have a section specifically designed for kids. Donations can be made in children’s names. Or, with their own money, children can donate something to which they personally relate—such as a soccer ball for a school in Iraq (eight dollars) or a flock of chicks to help a needy family get on its feet (ten dollars) or Bible story books for a Turkish Muslim child (six dollars).
“At first, our daughters didn’t have much money. But even kids can put aside money and save it up for a project like this.” -- PAT L.
That, of course, is the bottom-line question. Did the Chinese child given the gift of schooling in the teacher’s name stay in school long enough to get an education? Is the Sudanese boy okay? And what about that pastor in Bangladesh? He may have a bicycle, but if no one gives him regular support, how can he continue to minister?
A long study conducted by ActionAid and Oxfam in the United Kingdom forecast that after all of the 2004 tsunami donation money was finally spent, only 20 percent would have directly delivered services to the victims. This was mainly because in the early days of that disaster, many aid agencies failed to coordinate and work together. In some villages, agencies competed to see who could hand out the most aid, while in others, starving people waited in vain for help that never arrived.
Does the same hold true with catalog giving? Do some people get flooded with flocks of chickens and baby goats while in other places children starve because no one donates for milk or food? Do organizations feel threatened by one another and refuse to work together? Just exactly what is the approach?
Good questions. Important ones. So before we go any further . . .
It’s through lasting development that people grow in their ability to take control over their lives and improve the conditions that affect them. In the conclusion, we will discuss specific questions to ask when evaluating philanthropies, but are there basic concepts that make for effective development and relief projects? And do all organizations have to take the same approaches?
Yes, there are, and no, they don’t. Consider child sponsorship. For a regular twenty-five or fifty dollars a month, a donor receives a child’s picture and bio, sometimes notes from the child and, frequently, requests for extra gifts. But how exactly is that money used?
Well, it depends. For Compassion International, child sponsorship is the ministry. Its spokesman assured me that the child whose picture a sponsor receives is indeed the one who benefits from the donation. Oh, and each of Compassion’s 3,500 children—all chosen on the basis of need—is connected to a church.
World Vision, however, has a different child sponsorship philosophy. Its overall goal is to enable communities and the people who live in them to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty, and it sees child sponsors as critical to this end. So most of World Vision’s sponsored children are just representatives of the needy kids living with their families in villages or communities. The child whose picture a donor receives doesn’t exclusively benefit from the donation. Rather, that money is pooled with everyone else’s money and used for projects benefiting all the community’s children and families—a new school, say, or a well that provides clean water (although there are times when individual donations are used for a sponsored child’s specific needs).
But what happens if a sponsor stops sending in donations? Does the child suddenly go from a full stomach to starving? from school back to the streets? Every child-sponsoring charity I interviewed responded with an emphatic “No way!” Children are always cared for until another sponsor is found. Still, as World Vision’s representative emphasized, child sponsorship is not to be taken lightly. For when a sponsor drops out, “The child no longer benefits from a one-on-one relationship with a person who communicates with him and cares for him as an individual. Also, it affects the community.”
An oft-expressed development concern is how to prevent dependency in local communities. “Actually, the key is preventing unhealthy dependency,” Bob Savage, Partners International’s director of international ministries, pointed out. “We look for local partners with their own vision. That vision doesn’t change just because we provide money. Our partners already have their own track record. We simply come alongside and supplement it.”
One way to prevent unhealthy dependency is to encourage “sweat equity” in a project, where local people make their own investment with their physical labor. Savage emphasized that this is something built into his organization’s very foundation because “they are already working before we partner with them.”
Gary Lundstrom, executive vice president of Samaritan’s Purse, illustrated the same point by telling of a shipbuilding shop his organization set up after a group of fishermen lost their entire industry in a flood. Samaritan’s Purse provided materials and a master shipbuilder, who gave guidance and oversaw the project, but the majority of the construction work on the forty boats was done by the fishermen themselves.
Another concept on which all the organizations agreed is the importance of Western groups and local people making decisions together as partners. World Vision’s staff routinely meets and plans with community leaders for several months before they begin a long-term development program. “People with finance, knowledge and technology can provide advice and help, but they should not control the process,” the organization’s representative said. “People who are offered assistance play a vital part in defining what can be done and in implementing change. Participation is most effective when it empowers people to take control of their lives.”
“Unity through humility,” said Daniel Rickett, vice president of Sisters In Service (SIS).
And what of the concept of sustainability? When the project is over, will the local people continue to reap its benefits? “We build sustainability into all the projects in our catalog,” said Savage. “Almost every one builds people’s capacity to better take care of themselves.”
So does Heifer International, which works in fifty countries with the goal of providing animals—all the way from silkworms to elephants—to needy families so they can produce a salable product to support themselves. Heifer International requires that recipients pass the gift along by giving some of the animals’ offspring to neighbors.
According to Rickett, that which people do for themselves and their communities tends to be not only most effective, but also most sustainable.
World Vision actively encourages self-sufficiency by helping communities access sustainable food sources, clean water and sanitation systems, homes, health care, education and income-generating skills. In 2006, nearly one million jobs were created or sustained worldwide as a result of its microloan programs.
Actually, microenterprise—offered in many of the catalogs—is an excellent example of built-in sustainability: A loan is given. With hard work and business counseling, a business develops, grows and produces income. The loan is repaid. The interest earned covers the cost of the lending program, and the repaid money is available for another business to take as a loan. According to World Vision, “Families flourish. Lives are changed. The circle is complete—and growing.”
Lundstrom offered this example: After a devastating disaster, Samaritan’s Purse developed a training center in Indonesia where women were taught to sew. Then the organization helped them get sewing machines. The women set up their own independent businesses, and now they are completely self-supporting. Other women, who were taught to cook, opened a café. Today that café is successful and prosperous—and run solely by Acehnese people.
Yet for development projects to be truly effective, local culture and community context must be considered. These aren’t just projects, after all.
They are drastic changes that affect the lives of real, living, feeling human beings.
“But everyone knows, those people would be better off if . . .” Really? Everyone knows?
Many a project has crashed and burned because an agency charged forward, completely convinced that the only relevant sensibilities were its own and those of its donors.
“For Partners International, local context is the whole point,” said Savage. “Our programs are all directed from our local partners.” A World Vision representative said, “More than 95 percent of our staff is indigenous to the nations where we work. Participation is most effective when it respects people’s knowledge and skills.”
Unfortunately, not all organizations adhere to this simple caveat. Lundstrom told of sitting under a sheltered structure rebuilt by another group after the 2004 tsunami destruction. “What is this place?” he asked. He was told it was the marketplace. “But the marketplace is always the busiest place in town,” he said. “Why is no one here?” Because no one had bothered to consult the locals, and it had been built on the wrong side of the courtyard. Now the townspeople refused to use it. The group who built it simply snapped a few pictures for their donors and left.
This is exactly why Samaritan’s Purse makes certain that when it takes its signature program, “Operation Christmas Child,” into a new country, it knows the ground rules of the area. In places under Muslim control, for instance, its workers first ask local officials for permission, then they contact the local imams.
Despite all the planning, an organization must be willing to adapt and learn from changing circumstances. Partners International established a training center in Timbuktu, Mali, where women were taught to sew. The center was incredibly successful, with one hundred women completing the course each year. Trouble was, Timbuktu is an awfully small place for so many seamstresses. But since the program operators were right there locally, they quickly saw that many women could not find work in the saturated market. They responded by starting a bakery and teaching women to bake. Now the center has a second hugely successful enterprise, and it’s ready to start a third.
While these guidelines will help form a foundation for considering the projects in the following chapters, the answer to healthy development is in the process, as Rickett pointed out. “Accompanying people in the business of life, making the journey with them and supporting those who can do this—that’s the solution,” he said. “Through faith in God, it’s pointing people to justice, peace and hope.”
Armed with the promises made in gift catalogs, I set out to follow up with the people who were in the best position to know the realities— those who had actually received donations. I wanted to find out the degree to which they and their villages truly were affected by those gifts of twenty-five, fifty and two hundred dollars you and I donate.
Partners International kindly opened their catalog projects to me, allowing me to observe their sites around the world and to interview freely—uncensored and without obligation. To observe not only the successes but also the stumbles and difficulties. The examples in the book were taken from the Partners International catalog (and are subject to change). However, many other organizations sent me catalogs, granted me interviews and graciously answered my questions.
Now I invite you: Come along with me and judge for yourself. We’ll go to the refugee camps of Sudan, to North Africa and Senegal. We’ll visit India, Cambodia and China. We’ll spend time in Indonesia to see how true catastrophes are handled. Because this book is organized by subjects rather than by geography, we will sometimes visit several countries in one chapter. At other times we will return to a country we have previously visited and see a different program.
Along the way, you will meet some amazing people who find hope in the most challenging of circumstances.
We’ve seen the appeals. Now let’s see “the rest of the story.”