Give Well

I recently attended a screening of Poverty, Inc., a documentary film that is asking some very good questions about how we do ‘aid’ within the developing world. At the end of the film there was a question and answer session with one of the filmmakers, Simon Scionika. After a few moments of discussion, one of the audience members spoke up in exasperation, saying something to the effect of, “If we aren’t doing any good in these nations, maybe instead of trying to help, we should all just get out.” 

I am finding that to be a common sentiment these days. With so many critiques of development organizations and methods out there, it can be hard to know where to give anymore. Even larger, trusted organizations have their issues – overhead and overstaffing, to name a few.

Despite this, I believe that generosity is not dead. However, I sometimes fear that it is on the decline.

The average household gives 2% of their income to charitable causes. The average business is offering far less. There are rumors that Uncle Sam is going to make it more difficult for citizens to receive deductions and that churches will be taxed in coming years. There are frequent reports of charities misallocating funds resulting in disillusionment and donor fatigue. 

As a result, Americans are wising up – searching sites such as Guidestar and Charity Navigator before offering their donated dollar. They are giving to vetted organizations through monitoring sites such as Fidelity, Orchard Foundation, Waterstone, and other umbrella foundations. Many discerning philanthropists prefer smaller nonprofits with which they have a personal connection or experience.

And although I believe in the power of story to inspire change and celebrate life, gone are the days when an emotional plea can fund a budget year after year. The new, savvy giver wants statistics, testimonials, and credo in addition to the time-honored narrative.

And rightly so.

This generation is doing the nonprofit world a gigantic favor by requiring us to tell the quantitative story in addition to the qualitative; to measure our work and report on it (and then hire someone else to report on our reporting).

When I first stepped into this line of work, I was a passionate young idealist who wanted to help her friends around the world live better lives. It was enough in the early days to witness transformation for myself and to know we were making a difference.

Thankfully, our organization was able to receive some much needed consultation on how to begin creating measurement and evaluation tools to help us join the 21st century.

At first I chaffed. These surveys take time. So. Much. Time. We dedicate a full hour to surveying entrepreneurs at the beginning and end of our training course and another full hour within the following year.

We train over 250 entrepreneurs annually. That is a minimum of 500 hours just in surveying per year. And it doesn’t come cheap.

BUT what I didn’t realize would be a byproduct of learning to comply with best practices was the joy I would have as a result. You should see me on survey day. I steal them all before my programs staff can touch them and greedily read every single handwritten page – highlighting my favorite quotes along the way. Survey day is the best day. And it gives me cause to celebrate what God is doing in his people’s lives around the world, and what we, foolish though we are, get to be a part of.

While I may have dragged my feet in the beginning, I am now 150% onboard. Not only because I agree that there must be accountability for the sake of the donor, but also because we nonprofits need to know if the work we are doing is really the work we think we are doing. We need to know that the stories we are telling are true and that every dollar we accept is going to fund a worthy cause.

And so we survey. And we survey. And we analyze those surveys. Or rather, Hannah analyzes them.

Initially I thought this would make us more worthy of people’s generosity. But then I realized that no one is worthy of generosity - that would belie the action itself. 

You see, there is often a stark difference between charitable giving and generous giving. Charitable giving, while kind, necessary, and all-in-all a good thing to do, can sometimes be more about giving from a surplus and checking something off a list rather than than giving from our hearts. As a result, its impact is felt differently, primarily by the giver. 

And it is this kind of giving that I fear is leading to a decline in our nation’s philanthropy. People are forgetting what generosity feels like and are missing the benefit that comes as a result. 

I would imagine that if we all took a moment to reflect, we could each remember a time in which we were deeply affected by an extravagant gift we have received from another. Possibly those gifts held great monetary value; more often they were those given sacrificially from a loved one’s heart. 

One such moment that continues to replay in my mind was not even a gift meant for me, but one I witnessed given to another. Nearly 12 years ago I traveled within the crowded capital of Ethiopia. If you haven’t travelled to Addis Ababa, you wouldn’t know that it is a city where religious custom combines with deep poverty to fill a city to the brim with beggars. You cannot walk more than 10 steps in any public place without being swarmed by those desperate for alms. 

Photo Credit: David Stanley, Flickr

Photo Credit: David Stanley, Flickr

I was traveling at the time with two other American women in our twenties and we were overwhelmed to say the least. Our local driver, Sam, was taking us souvenir shopping and, as we parked in front of a craft shop, our vehicle was thronged with a multitude of outstretched hands. We hastily rolled our windows up and fixed our eyes straight ahead as though none of the faces pressed against the glass were there.

While we were busy inspecting the shop’s cinder block wall, Sam opened his door and got out. He walked straight up to a sickly woman whose eyes were matted shut, placed an arm around her shoulders and pulled a tissue from his pocket to gently wipe her face, simultaneously depositing a few coins into her outstretched hand. 

All the while, the three of us sat there, humbled and slightly ashamed by what we had just witnessed. Sam had demonstrated love toward his neighbor in such a beautiful and tangible way while the rest of us chose to disengage and self-protect. Protect ourselves from what? From the needs of others? From the beautiful people just on the other side of the glass? 

That day Sam gave me a gift that would forever change me. His generosity of spirit and person challenged me to live differently in response to those around me. 

Oftentimes we hear of a large sum being given to this organization or that by a wealthy donor. These large monetary contributions are referred to as “generous gifts.” As a result, we have been conditioned to think that generosity is defined quantitatively. 

But I would argue that the true measure of generosity is not the monetary value, but instead the intention with which it is given. For a gift to be truly generous, I believe it must cost the giver. 

When we encounter this form of generosity, it has the power to change us, just as I was changed that chaotic day in Addis Ababa.

Photo Credit:  hnphoto on Flickr.

Photo Credit:  hnphoto on Flickr.

But the receiver is not the only one who is changed. The giver is also transformed by the act of giving. This is why Jesus told the parable of the widow and her mite. He was pleased not by what she gave, but how she gave. Sacrificially. Of herself. And I am sure she too left that temple a different woman. 

In this way, generosity is a two-way street. Making the adage “it is more blessed to give than to receive” one of profound truth. When we give deeply and intentionally, we receive a joy and satisfaction that cannot be attained in any other way. We get to become an integral part of another’s life that binds us in solidarity. 

At the end of the day, I do hope our organizational commitment to reporting makes us a little more worthy of people’s charitable donations, but it cannot make us more worthy of their generosity.

More importantly, I hope it makes us better. I hope it causes us to rethink our lesson plans, change our timelines, and shift our parameters. I also hope it fuels our fire and validates those long days with little pay.

We still have lots to learn in this area and plenty of room to grow, but for now I can say with the clearest of consciences that we are doing the best we can with the resources allotted. And I am ever so grateful for those who choose to see the work we are called to and invest in it, despite the difficulty we all face in choosing where and how to give.

Instead of becoming frustrated by the challenge of finding worthy causes or discouraged by the news reports of misallocated funds, those with generosity stamped on their hearts find a way to give and give abundantly. I am proud of those who have chosen this path because those who sow generously will also reap generously. And so, my friends, I dare you to give. To consider well, dig deep, and give. And not only to give charitably, but to give generously. Because as they say, what goes around comes around, and truly, it is more blessed to give than to receive.

~Sarah Ray