confessions of a well-meaning donor

Confessions of a Well-meaning Donor


In the introduction to When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkert tells a story about a trip he took to Africa and that, while there, he gave $8 to a woman who urgently needed medical help. Afterward, he regretted his donation. He picks up the story here in chapter 5, explaining the harm that he did—that with $8 he undermined the ministry of the local church, the relationships the woman needed within her community and the leadership of the local pastor.

It all sounds so obvious and logical when he explains it like he does.

But in the heat of the moment, when I’m confronted with an emaciated child, a picture of a dried up well or a sign that says, “Hungry. Anything helps,” I’m not usually thinking logically.

I lead with my heart.

I think this response of empathy, sorrow, and desire to help is the beginning of the work God does in us. Jesus had compassion, and so must we. But we can’t stop there. We need to work hard to be knowledgeable and savvy givers.

If you’re reading this blog, you most likely donate to some ministries (if not, you’re really missing out on some serious joy and blessings). Whether we are able to give $10 or $10,000, we are donors. If you’re like me, you channel your tithes and offerings through your church, missionary friends and non-profit organizations you trust. Have you ever considered that, as we choose who and what to give our money to, we are co-creators of kingdom ministry? To some extent, donations steer what organizations are able to do. The old adage, “He who holds the gold makes the rules” is still pretty true. Organizations don’t only do what they know is best, they do what they know they can fund.

I’m not saying all organizations let donors call the shots. Far from it. Some are better than others at balancing financial obligations and faith. Reconciled World strives to listen hard to God’s directions and follow His voice, trusting Him to provide for His work. And I know we aren’t alone. And, yes, you should totally give to us!

What I am saying is that as long as there are donors who want to give to paternalistic projects, ineffective and damaging “ministry” will continue to be perpetrated on the poor. We cannot escape some responsibility for that. Each of us needs to steward the resources God entrusts to us with some serious fear and trembling.

I’ve worked in the fund-raising area of the non-profit world for more than ten years, and I’ve witnessed how helping hurts from the inside. The organization I worked with a number of years ago had a program on the ground in Africa working hard to empower a community to solve their water problems. The community members had decided that water catchments would be the best way for them to bring water to their community. Then along came a donor with $50,000 who really wanted to build a well. So we built a well.

Several times, we were talking with donors about funding programs that were providing discipleship and organizing savings groups, only to have that donor receive a mailing about a 20-to-1 matching grant from USAID and decide to “leverage their investment” by giving to that instead.

I’m not saying that matching grants are unavoidably bad, but I do whole-heartedly agree with Brian’s statement on page 141:

“It has become commonplace in charitable giving to ask, What is the most highly leveraged way to invest money in order to have the greatest impact for the kingdom?…It might help donors if they remembered that creating decision-making capacity on the part of the poor is a return—arguably the chief return—on their investment.”

“Yeah,” you say, “But I don’t give 50k. My 30 bucks isn’t going to have that kind of impact.”

I’ve seen a whole organization shift away from meaningful discipleship and relationship ministries to more “leveraged” and “quantifiable” (but less transformative) work, because that’s what market trends showed played well to the crowd of Americans that give $30 a month.

It matters that we give wisely.

2 Peter 1:5-6 says, “…make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control…”

If you’re reading this book with us, that is a huge step in adding knowledge to your poverty-alleviation toolkit. Fikkert gives great giving tips like:

  • Allow communities and organisations to design programs
  • Don’t assume you know best. Don’t automatically assume that high leveraged giving is best. God often leverages our money in unexpected ways.
  • When giving directly to people (rather than organisations) think about whether you are doing something to, for or with the person.
  • When giving to an organisation look at whether they are doing things to, for or with – choose organisations that go beyond the with.
  • Don’t stop giving! Give more. Not less.

This is my second time through the book, and I can honestly say I needed the refresher. My tendency is constantly to slip back into inappropriate giving even though I know better. I need a massive dose of self-control.

Here’s my current plan:

  1. Memorize one sentence from When Helping Hurts: “Development is not done to people or for people but with people.” Pg. 100
  2. Pause for one moment when I’m confronted with a need and ask myself, “Will my donation create work that is it to, for or with people?”
  3. If the answer is to or for or “I don’t know,” I’m NOT going to give money.

At the risk of getting preachy, I’ll end with an appeal:

  • If you haven’t been reading When Helping Hurts, please download it now and get started! It’s not too late, and it is worth your time and $13.
  •  While you read, keep asking God to show you how to give wisely. It may be time to graciously end your giving to some things while you expand or start giving to others. It may be time to get off some highly-emotional mailing lists.

Steward well, friends. God has entrusted us with much.

Image courtesy of Brett_Hondow/ pixabay.com

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