I’m going to get back to the Leaving Season posts (1 and 2) after Christmas. Too many words and too many thoughts that putting them down has proven more complicated than I anticipated. I would also love to keep commenting on missiology and John Chau but I am resisting that urge for now.
Gifts of Change aka The Ask
Today, and for the next four weeks, I need to turn to a more pressing concern – it is Advent and people are asking me how they can financially support our ministry. The most basic response is to follow this link and give through Gifts of Change to this project. My ministry is here and it is called Train Christian Leaders – Malawi (IMMA09). There is no easy way to contribute specifically to Vivian’s work but anything that is labeled Malawi is great.
I’m very grateful for everyone who does donate. I am aware that there are many great places people can give. I’d be bankrupt if I gave to every worthy cause. So, in thinking about why you should give to the Gifts of Change project, I’ve been thinking of criteria for making gift-giving decisions in general.
- Does this meet a real need versus meeting a perceived need?
- Is this ‘ask’ boring enough that no other donor will step in?
- Does this ‘ask’ have a hope of multiplying something?
- Will this ‘ask’ increase the capacity of a person?
- Does this address some need beyond the physical?
Here is my thinking around the first two criteria that I use when considering donating.
Does this meet a real need versus meeting a perceived need?
It is common for people to ask for money based on what they think the donor wants. Instead of asking based on a real need, they will assess what the donor would believe is a real need. The homeless guy with a sign that says, “$ for Food” thinks that pedestrian will think that is worthy. He might spend the money on dog food because he values companionship more than eating but he thinks others want to donate to food. Even more, the donor might make it clear what they want and what is worthy of their donation.
This makes the recipient into an object. They figure out what the donor wants to buy and become that object. Want to give for food? I’m hungry. The recipient loses what little agency they already have by having to give in to the donor’s desires. Sometimes donors have very good intentions; they want to donate to “worthy” causes that will benefit both donor and recipient. This has the double disadvantage of forcing the recipient to objectify themselves and places the donor in a paternal role. We know what is better for you more than you do yourself so conform to our desire.
Recipients are desperate. They really have nothing to lose. Their choices are contorting themselves, make themselves into objects and children, to get scraps. Scraps are something. The recipient will make the calculation that it is worth objectifying themselves for something when the alternative is nothing.
So, to avoid this, I try to figure out what the real need of the recipient is. There will always be a power dynamic that obscures the real need. Why else do people come to me if they don’t recognize that I have access to resources and therefore more power? It would be naïve to think that in recognizing the power differential I can make it go away. As well, there will always be self-deception involved. Both me as the donor and them as the recipient don’t know our true and real needs. Still, it is possible to be in relationship with someone and in that relationship real needs emerge. We know ourselves in and through relationships of mutuality.
Is this ‘ask’ boring enough that no other donor would step in?
Real needs are boring. At the most basic level, people need shelter and food. In our world most people acquire shelter and food through working for pay. People get anxious when they don’t get paid for the work that they do. Even if there is a whiff of doubt about getting paid, people will turn to fear. This anxiety overwhelms everything which in turn impedes their productivity. Reduced productivity leads to less pay and the circle is vicious and biting and horrible at this point. The most fundamental need of the organizations and people asking me for money is to meet payroll at month’s end.
In case I’m not clear, here are three examples of just how boring real needs are. First, the CCAP Blantyre Synod, a church of over a million members, suspended all programming for the months of November and December. They did so because it was the most fiscally prudent thing they could do to meet payroll at Christmas time. Imagine if any church with over a million members in North America shut down its denominational office, ceased all activity including committee meetings, for the two months leading up to Christmas, so that it could meet payroll. Second, Zomba Theological College lecturers have not been paid on time in months, maybe years. They get paid. Eventually. Imagine doing your personal budget when you don’t know when you are going to get paid. End of month comes, rent comes due, and you don’t know when your next paycheque will arrive. Perhaps it won’t. Perhaps this will be the time that you don’t get paid. What do you do then? You have to have an escape plan so you over work yourself to make sure you have enough income streams that if one dries up you can survive on the others. Third, TEEM has had to reschedule and relocate its classes numerous times to cut costs in order to meet payroll. Students and lecturers are given notice but still, changing times and places because of budgetary restrictions creates instability. Instability leads to doubting the competency of the organization. Doubting the competency leads to lower enrolment which leads to budgetary crisis which …. You see the vicious circle.
No charity in North America starts with the vision of helping other organizations meet payroll. Who would give to that? Nor should they (see the first criteria next week) but in assessing whether or not I give, I am aware of the fact that when the potential recipient expresses their real need, it sounds boring. I understand why charities go for the exciting. People like to give to exciting. Everyone loves contributing to a feel-good story. If someone comes to me with an exciting need, I assume that they will likely find funding elsewhere. Someone with the boring need won’t, so I give to that.
Next week the other criteria.