I don’t mind asking people for money for things that I believe in. Like the Gifts of Change that the Presbyterian Church in Canada promotes at this time of year. Specifically, I’d love if people equipped classrooms for Christian pastors and leaders. I’d settle for people giving to anything that had Malawi involved.
But I get that asking can overwhelm even the most generous. Someone asks me for money every day. Every. Single. Day. Not the stranger on the street kind of ask. People I know and like and respect kind of ask. A colleague makes a proposal for a project that they want me to find funding for. Students come to apologize because they can’t pay school fees so they are dropping out. Staff need another advance because they have no food at home. A friend needs some money to fix their refrigerator or car. And that was just last week.
I try to help. I can find funding for some projects. I can give an “advance” to staff but then pay them their full amount on pay day. I can source, and buy, a spare part for a fridge or car. But I can’t find funding for every worthy project, give unlimited “advances,” or fix every broken appliance. And I can’t do much for the student who can’t pay school fees. In part I can’t do these things because there are too many asks. Recently my Twitter feed include a parent’s association who set up a GoFundMe type account to pay their kid’s university fees.
#Appeal4Assistance Our public university students are in dire need of assistance towards tuition & accommodation. Get in touch with Mr. Chikwekwe of the University of #Malawi Students' Parents Association on +265 999 636 404 on how you can #FundAStudent #GoFundMe
— 2019 Malawi Elections (@Malawi2014) December 4, 2018
Parents and students at public universities are now appealing on my Twitter feed! For my own sanity and financial stability, I need to limit my response. If I don’t, then I’ll be funding the education system in Malawi because almost every student can’t pay school fees.
The first two criteria from last week were:
- Does this meet a real need versus meeting a perceived need?
- Is this ask boring enough that no other donor will step in?
This week I add these three:
- 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?
Does this ask have a hope of multiplying something?
A buzzword in the development community is sustainability. A hand out is not sustainable from the donor’s perspective. Instead of a hand out, we should give a hand up. Practically speaking that means only responding to asks that have some sustainability built in.
This is partly true, but I think that there are at least two problems with it. First, it reduces asks to those things that are economic. How do we turn our giving into an investment? How do we give in such a way that the recipient won’t need to ask again? For that to happen we would need to help them make money since that is what we are giving in the first place. One of the main criteria becomes, “Will this ask lead to income generation for the organization?”
This points to the second problem, namely that many things will never be economically sustainable. Education for instance. Lots of asks will produce non-economic goods (see point #5) but economic sustainability is not one of them. In a place like Malawi this can change the fundamental mission of an organization. To only give to those asks that will lead to income generation is to shift the organization’s focus from the thing that they do to how can they turn that thing that they do into a business (a variation of Question #1). We move from focusing on ends, the goals of the organization, to means, how we achieve those goals. We prioritize the means over the ends. Eventually the means will determine the ends and we have lots of income generation but will have lost the mission of the organization.
Instead of sustainability I look at multiplication. Does the end that this organization pursues produce a sizable multiplier effect for the community? For instance, we know, that on average, lifelong earnings increase with education. Education leads to better economics. We also know that innovation, research, and development are tied to institutions of higher learning. Education leads to better problem-solving. As well, women’s lives improve the more that they are educated. Education leads to better human rights. While education will never be sustainable economically, its positive effects multiply across many dimensions of society and is therefore something that is good to support.
Will this ask increase the capacity of a person?
We have a Malawian friend who regularly asks for a sizeable loan so his wife may start a small business. Every time he asks, we say the same things: we aren’t giving you a loan for your wife; we will give it to her if she is enrolled in a program that supports women starting small businesses. (Through past experiences with this friend we know that the loan would never be repaid, which is very common in Malawi, so the loan would actually be a gift.) In other words, our loan (gift) needs to go to the individual who is going to use it and that person needs to increase their chances of succeeding in their own goals.
Our friend’s wife needs two things. The first is what he sees, namely a large loan. The second, that he doesn’t see, is that she does not have the ability to deal with that loan even if we gave it to her. If her business skills were adequate, then she would already have found a loan because there are many available. It isn’t that she is stupid or weak; she just hasn’t had her skill set enlarged and her imagination stretched, she hasn’t been supported to grow and gain new knowledge.
If Question #3 about multiplication focuses on the outcomes of the ask, then this question centres on the individual and the long-term benefits to them. My theory is that my effect on large scale problems must start with the individuals most involved in solving them. By giving to this ask, am I increasing this person’s capacity so that they might not only succeed here and now but build on that success into the future?
Does this address some need beyond the physical?
Economics aren’t everything. A family of five can’t eat hope for dinner but without hope there is no reason to live anymore. Ask anyone who has gotten rich if all of their problems were solved, if all of their relationships became perfect, if the meaning of life became clear.
Yes, as humans we have a deep moral obligation to ensure that all of humanity has the basic necessities of life. We should not forget the poor. But we should also not forget that human life is much more than the basic necessities. Humans should work towards justice, not because it makes sense economically but because it is right and good. We should celebrate beauty, not just because ugliness impoverishes us economically but because the human soul can soar. We should pursue education, not just so that we can be more marketable but because curiosity and discovery are human virtues, worth cultivating on their own.
One of the worst characteristics of North American society is that we reduce everything to economics. This is also a primary trait of colonialism which reduces other places to their economic value to the colonizer. We ignore other parts of humanity – hope, joy, peace, love, Christ – to our detriment. Does giving to this ask give in to the reductionism of capitalism or does it focus on the whole human?
Next week I will give the first of two specific examples of how equipping classrooms fits my criterion.