Freely Given, Apathetically Received

Timothy Kayera spoke with been-there-done-that confidence. He grew stronger with each word, pulling me closer with the fire of his conviction. And then he summarized everything I believe about charity. In four words.

I used to work with one of those organizations that gave stuff away to everyone. We’d give away animals, clothing and clean water. All for free. I remember when we’d give goats to people, I would get phone calls and they’d say, “Timothy, your goat is dead.”

Your goat is dead. I’ve tried to articulate this idea dozens of times over the years, but never this potently. In four words, the caller said:

  • It was never his goat in the first place,
  • It was inconsequential it died, and
  • It was Timothy’s job to replace it.

Kayera is a star in Rwanda’s promising cast of young leaders. He directs HOPE’s efforts in a region of Rwanda and he emphasized the difference of his new job. His work now creates dignity, not dependency. Partnership, not pity. Timothy joins a chorus of Rwandans in this song, from the president of the country to “Rwanda’s Desmond Tutu.”

[The poor] are as capable, as competent, as gifted, and as talented as anyone else…In society, you must create opportunities to help people develop their capacity and talents. – Paul Kagame

We need to move from aid to production, from existing to living. It’s high time we stop telling our people they can’t do it. They can, yes. And we shall do it. – Bishop John Ruchyahana

Timothy, President Kagame and Bishop Ruchyahana share this opinion: Traditional charity erodes the nature of people and the fabric of society. When giveaways permeate, they communicate a clear message: What you lack, I provide. Where you are weak, I am strong. When you can’t, I can. It’s a bad message, preventing people from hearing the better message from their Creator:I made you to make. I designed you to design. You are blessed to bless others. When charity runs its course—as it has in many places in Rwanda, Haiti and elsewhere—it lures the poor with handouts and traps them on unneeded life support. But that’s why Timothy got out of that business. He saw its destructive path and cut the cord before it strangled.

Today he anchors his work on who people are created to be and what we are designed to do. He doesn’t lure with goodies. Instead, he demands hard work from those he serves. People like Rachel. I saw the future of Rwanda in her. Rachel showed me the house she built and the 16 pigs she purchased over the past two years. She showed me the litters of piglets she’s bred and the piles of fertilizer she sells. But Rachel isn’t filling her barns for herself. I asked her what her dreams are and she said, “The greatest joy of these pigs is that I am now able to share with my church and with others.”


Rachel didn’t beg for cash or stoop in compliance. She stood tall as a confident merchant, wife and mother. She did not avert her gaze. Her eyes were strong and generous. Rachel wasn’t the product of charity. She simply knew who she was created to be.

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

Are Charities Lying To You At Christmas?

It’s Christmas time and charitable giving is at a yearly high, but are your really buying a heifer?

No, not really. I realize this might be a Santa’s-not-real moment, but don’t rush to label me a charitable Scrooge. I love Christmas and the wreath of generosity that surrounds the season.

You aren’t buying a heifer, but this isn’t hush-hush. Heifer Internationalthe heifer-distributing marvel, even tells you so. When you make your purchase, they note that “every gift to Heifer International represents a gift to our total mission.” In other words, when you “gift a heifer,” you grow the general fund. Nearly every donated dollar (94%) is an unrestricted, no-strings-attached general fund contribution.

Heifers are certainly bought by Heifer International. Over 40,000 of them in 2010! But your gift of one heifer isn’t directly buying one heifer. So, are they lying to us? I’ll make the question more personal: Am I lying to you? Because here’s the truth: My organization does it too.

While Heifer pioneered the approach, most charities followed closely behind them—World VisionThe Red Cross and even my employer, HOPE. While we all state something like “the gifts depicted in this catalog symbolically represent our work,” most people assume they’re really buying heifers, goats, sewing machines, honeybees, trees and art classes. The catalog phenomenon, at its core, is beautiful. I laud efforts to inspire generosity and cultivate significance in the giving process. But, are we swindling you, the generous Christmas giver?


It’s an interesting ethical case study. I’ll offer the following considerations:

Integrity in the Means: We can’t raise millions by making this appeal: Make a general, undesignated gift to help us cover our overhead costs this Christmas season! Do charitable ends justify ethically cloudy means? I don’t think so. Swindling is never good, even for the noblest of causes. Small adjustments can ensure no one is tricked by the process.

HOPE, for example, directs all catalog purchases directly to the featured country. While “buying a sewing machine for a Congolese entrepreneur” doesn’t mean your funding will directly buy a sewing machine, your donation does benefit our work in Congo. World Vision does a great job of forthrightly describing their process (pictured below). Hold your charity to a high standard and call us out if you spot duping. Compassion, experts in donor-to-beneficiary connections through their child sponsorship model, has developed the best system I’ve seen to actually connect gift purchase to the end use.

Focus on the Ends: Compelling marketing and heartfelt appeals should never trump your belief in the organizations you support. Will “the heifer” be a meal or a business? Do Kenyan families need heifers? Will the heifers be given in dignifying ways? Does the heifer-giver share my faith and values? What percentage of my gift will go to buying the heifer and what percentage to overhead? These questions–––questions of implementation and effectiveness–––should drive Christmas giving. It is the heifer beneficiary, after all, whose opinion matters most. Knowing that opinion demands investigation of the ends.

Heifers are big business at Christmastime. And for many reasons, this is exciting. This season is about connections among people. Jesus connecting with humanity as an infant. Families connecting with one another. Friends connecting over spiced cider. And this is what endears me to gift catalogs: Givers connecting with receivers–––and ultimately beneficiaries–––in meaningful, tangible ways. Not a donation into the abyss, but a shared moment between people. As organizations, we need to respect the significance of these moments by elevating our integrity in how we create them.

[alert style=”note”] Sound Off: How do you handle your giving? Do you need to know precisely where it’s going? Let us know in the comments below. [/alert]

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

Ignoring the Lies Makes a World of Difference

Ed. note: Today’s guest post is from Nate Cousineau, the founder and executive director of World Aid Now, a non-profit that exists to help in aiding a world in need. You can email Nate here or follow him on twitter: @nate_cousineau.

There is evil in this world. There is pain, suffering, and injustice. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes we simply block it out. Sometimes we convince ourselves that acknowledging it is pointless, since we can do nothing about it. Since the problems are so massive, and so far-reaching, any effort by us will just be wasted time. Sometimes…  Most times, we believe these lies.

For me personally, I wasted too much time believing these lies; accepting that the injustices around the world were for others to handle. For people with more money, more influence, more power. That was until the summer of 2010, when my ability to ignore the hurt was overwhelmed by the reality of that hurt. Pakistan was being ravaged by massive monsoons. Twenty million people were affected and approximately 2,000 killed. I watched as a world, fatigued by natural disasters (see: Haiti earthquake), did next to nothing as people died.

By the middle of August I had reached my breaking point. I contacted water manufacturers in the Middle East, got pricing on MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), emailed churches, and did everything I could think of to try and help. I was repeatedly told to just send money to the Red Cross or another similar organization. I couldn’t. Something kept telling me that mailing a check was the easy way out. That it wasn’t enough. I knew I had to do more. Through all the rejections and the “no’s” I just kept telling myself, “If opportunity doesn’t come knocking, build a door!” Finally, after weeks of dead ends, I got in contact with a missionary in Pakistan – we were in business! By this point I had brought a few others into the fold and we began asking everyone we knew for money to support the relief efforts. We quickly realized that we needed to incorporate as well as obtain our 501c3 status. We chose the name World Aid Now, incorporated, and began the paperwork for the 501c3.

As we shaped our vision for World Aid Now we knew a few things. We knew we wanted to be committed to relief efforts – not to simply put a Band-Aid on the problem and leave. We knew that those in need must play the primary role in defining and designing the relief efforts – not us in our comfortable living rooms. We knew that everyone can make a difference – even those without money. Whether it was through a retweet, repost, volunteering their time, or telling a friend, everyone could contribute. We knew that those with money want one-hundred pennies out of every dollar they donate to go to those in need – not just a portion of it. We took what we knew and used it as the foundation for our efforts.

In January of 2011 we began a sustainable project in Pakistan helping families who lost everything rebuild their homes. By the end of 2011 we had built 30 new homes! That summer we also responded to the massive tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, sending nearly $6,000 in relief funds.

We were riding an amazing high, but it didn’t last. We hit a wall. Communication was always a challenge with those on the ground in Pakistan, but it was becoming increasingly worse. We were also finding that small organizations are poorly suited for disaster relief. The time and resources required to develop relationships and projects prohibit a timely response to the disaster. We started to wrestle with this reality and began to dream about the future of World Aid Now. After much discussion, deliberation, and prayer we decided we would expand our mission to encompass more people and more projects. We would not simply do disaster relief, but would become a more general humanitarian aid organization, with projects such as clean drinking water, orphan care, economic empowerment, and more.


That brings us to today. Over the course of 2012 we reshaped our mission and worked to develop new projects with numerous organizations. Today, we are launching World Aid Now 2.0. Our first project will be in partnership with Kirabo Seeds, an orphanage in Uganda. We will be working with them to build a piggery (a pig farm). The piggery will be able to house 6-8 pigs at a time, with a full grown pig (approximately 1 year old) selling for $200. This project will provide Kirabo Seeds with a predictable and consistent source of revenue, moving them closer to self-sustainability!

Not everyone is called to start a nonprofit, but believing you cannot make a difference is believing a lie. There is pain and suffering all around the world. Whether you choose to help those in China, Africa, or next door, choose to help. Choose to silence the lie that your money, your abilities, your time, or you are not enough. They are. You are.

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4 Tips for Angel Tree Giving

Tis’ the season to display angel trees. I love the spirit of generosity that characterizes Christmastime. But, if our compassion goes awry, we can do more harm than good (like in this instance, when I totally missed the mark). Here are four tips to make your Christmas gift giveaway both compassionate and dignifying to those you serve:


1. Affirm parents as providers

Ensure the giveaway affirms God’s designed role for parents as providers. Children need to view their parents as the gift purchasers and givers.  It undermines healthy family dynamics for volunteers to give the gifts directly to the children (unless the children do not have parents). Fight for the dignity of these families.


2. Host a store

A number of innovating churches and ministries, such as Mile High Ministries in Denver, transitioned from person-to-person sponsorship to hosting a “store” for families unable to afford full-cost Christmas gifts for their children. Charge something (even if its highly subsidized) rather than charging nothing as it protects dignity. Finding a “great bargain” resonates deeper than awaiting a handout. Parents experience the joy of shopping (and giving to their kids). Volunteers experience the joy of creating a welcoming, festive and enjoyable environment for the families. Make it fun! Feature live music, gift wrapping stations, hot beverages, and elf-costume-wearing childcare staff.


3. Avoid “knight on white horse” syndrome

We give horn-tooting a free pass during this season. Celebrate generosity, but do so with humility. As James reminds us, “Every good and perfect gift comes from above.”  Our ability to give is not a privilege we have earned; it too is a gift. As givers, we come as friends, not as rescuers, standing firmly on our common ground. This sets the table for our benevolence. Leaders who affirm this will position their gift giveaways for success.


4. Employ sensitivity with pictures and video

How would you want to be portrayed if you were a recipient? Let that be your guide.


[alert style=”info”] Sound Off: Did we miss anything? Do you have any successful examples or models of churches or groups that have done Christmas gift campaigns well? Let us know in the comments below. [/alert]

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

Extreme(ly Ineffective) Home Makeover

I have never watched ABC’s hit series “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” without getting goosebumps, at the very least. A recent episode featured an incredible rehabilitation project at a school for deaf youth. My heart strings weren’t tugged. They were yanked. I was enthralled with the stories of the kids, and deeply moved by the incredible transformation which took place.

But, sadly, Extreme Makeover has been has had a very shaky record of success. When the projects ended for many of the recipient families, and the celebrities were replaced with utilities bills, their homes became a suffocating hardship. Six of the families have actually gone into foreclosure. For these six families, the Extreme Makeover experience made a big splash but became a big burden.The ongoing costs and maintenance required for heating these huge homes and keeping the swimming pools operable were exorbitantly and unaffordably high.

Source: TV Guide

These families struggled with a gift they were not prepared to receive. Tracy Hutson, an interior designer on the show, responded to these foreclosures: “I think our hearts were in the right place, but we just got carried away.”

Tracy’s reflections to her failed charity projects mirror feelings we all have experienced after our own misguided compassionate endeavors. Like the producers, donors and celebrities on Extreme Makeover, we often swarm into poor communities with our cameras flashing. We generate a firestorm of enthusiasm, but so often our results fall woefully short of our noble and charitable intentions. Our hearts were right, but our outcomes were wrong.

To their credit, the producers of Extreme Makeover have since adjusted their approach to ensure a higher level of success: They are building smaller homes with more manageable upkeep and they are working with recipient families to ensure they are capable of maintaining their new homes. Likewise, the solution to our failed charitable efforts should not be to abandon Good Samaritanism altogether. Instead, we need to intensely scrutinize our efforts, retool where necessary, and ensure that those on the receiving end of our efforts are partners in the process.

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

Cocaine Charity

My friend, Brian, recently returned from a missions trip to Kenya. He led a group of youth as they supported their Kenyan partner church ministry for two weeks. The Kenyan ministry’s focus was HIV positive mothers in its very poor slum community. They provided food, money, prayer and helped their children—demonstrating the love of Christ in word and deed. Brian and the youth group dove in. They spread the news of the church’s ministry into the neighboring communities.

A week into the trip, Brian had a stirring, even haunting, realization. This Kenyan ministry had become “the cocaine of its community.” He shared candidly with me that these mothers were completely dependent upon the charity, and indirectly on Brian’s church which funded it. Instead of working, these capable women would sit every day at the door of the charity, waiting for the free distributions. As a result, their children saw their moms time-and-again not as providers, but as placid receivers.

The more I study, the more I discover how different the biblical prescription of charity is from my own. Consider gleaning. God’s people were not commanded to harvest the fields fully and give a tithe of their grain away, but rather to leave portions of the fields unharvested. Doing so provided the poor, the widows and the foreigners with meaningful work, sustenance and on-the-spot vocational training. And gleaning was a command for all business owners, not just the wheat farmers.

When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. (Deut 24:20-21)

I believe we have misinterpreted God’s commands to help the poor. Jewish scholars state that woven through the Torah is an understanding that “not all charity is created equal.” They cite that “the greatest level [of charity], above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others.”

Does this prescription align with the majority of our charitable endeavors? Brian had deep respect that this Kenyan ministry served the “least of these.” But, was this charity in alignment with the biblical model of charity? Were they helping these women…

  1. To no longer need to receive charity?
  2. Experience the dignity of honest work?
  3. Enjoy the blessing of providing for their children?
  4. Know the joy of giving charitably to others?

In fairness, there are times when the only appropriate response is to freely give things away. The Haiti earthquake and support to the disabled are examples of such. But, barring such exceptions, our long-term aim should always be to help in a way which frees recipients of the need for our charity, “so that they might help others in need” (Eph. 4:28). Well-intentioned charity devoid of this goal can lead to unhealthy dependency, it can strip parents of their God-given role as providers, and, as Brian saw in Kenya, it can lead to addiction.

Michael Scott and Andy Bernard on Charity

Sitcoms rarely address the effectiveness of charity and international aid. However, Michael Scott and Andy Bernard exposited these deep issues on a recent episode of The Office. Aiming to impress their friends and colleagues, the winsome duo joined a busload of aspiring youngsters bound for Mexico on a three month mission trip.

The scene unfolds:

Andy: Save me an aisle seat, Michael, I’m coming. I will not stand idly by while these Mexican villagers are sick.

Trip Leader: We are actually building a school.

Andy: Whatever. I won’t stand for it.

Michael: How long till we get to Mexico?

Andy: Well, two days minus how long we’ve been on the road. 45 minutes? So, like two days basically. Maybe more.

Michael: What are we building down there again? Like a hospital? A school for Mexicans? What?

Andy: I don’t know. I thought it was like a gymnasium.

Michael: Why aren’t they building it for themselves?

Andy: They don’t know how.

Michael: Do we know how? I don’t know how.

The episode closes with the comedic tandem abandoning their charitable foray, convicted that their talents would be better served selling paper to small business owners in Scranton. Channeling their inner Robert Lupton (and my other favorites, Brian FikkertDambisa Moyo and Bill Easterly), Scott and Bernard touch on some deep issues in their short monologue:

Is our charity needed? Are we displacing someone locally who could do the job? Do we actually have the skills and capacity to serve well? Is our helping really helping?  …an unlikely source prompts big questions.

Mortensen, Madonna and Saving the World

Picture this scene: You are dining at a new restaurant. The server hastily distributes the plates and departs with a sarcastic, “Enjoy!” You sample each portion of the meal, but with every passing bite, your disappointment swells. The sautéed chicken is undercooked and flavorless. The corn risotto is pasty and infused with inexcusable quantities of black pepper. Wilting iceberg lettuce and gobs of artery-clogging dressing compose a poor façade of a salad.

As you dejectedly push the underwhelming plate away, the chef stops by your table for his customary check-in. “How’s the meal?” he asks.

You proceed to detail the substandard reality of the bad meal and poor service. In the middle of your complaint, the chef interjects with an outstretched hand.

“Before you go on, let me explain,” he says. “I need you to know something: I truly, honestly, attempted my very best on this meal. I made it especially for you and had actually hoped this would be the best meal you ever tasted. In regards to the bad service, we endeavor to treat our customers with first class service. It’s our hope that anyone who steps through the doors of our restaurant is treated like royalty.”

The chef’s response is baffling. Regardless of how desperately he wanted to serve great food, it does not excuse his terrible food and shoddy service. You would hold him accountable for the meal, for the results, not for his noble aims. Still, this scenario is not as preposterous as it reads.

Over the past year, two major charity failures hit the press. Madonna, perhaps America’s most iconic pop diva, raised eyebrows from the public and furor from the donors who supported her nonprofit. Madonna raised over $18 million to build a school for 400 girls in Malawi. The only problem is that her organization spent millions of these donated dollars but never actually built a school. “It has always been my dream to train women leaders who can help develop the country,” Madonna said when she launched her fundraising campaign for Malawi. “It is my aim to see Malawian girls get the right education.”

Photo Source: The Guardian UK

Greg Mortensen, the oft-ballyhooed author of Three Cups of Tea, was also in the news for what we now know were highly-exaggerated (in some cases wholly fabricated) accounts of his heroic journeys in Pakistan. A 60 Minutes investigation of the nonprofit he founded revealed innumerable cases of mismanagement and lack of financial accountability. Sadly, 60 Minutes cites that half of the dozens of schools he claims to have built are nonexistent, empty, or were not funded by Mortensen. Several years ago, in his acceptance interview after winning a Public Service award, Mortensen said, “I decided…that I’d like to dedicate my life to promoting education and literacy, and building schools in Pakistan, Afghanistan.”

Mortensen and Madonna, like the aloof chef, had grandiose and honorable aims, which attracted thousands to support them. As we say, their hearts were in the right places—in this case, Malawi and Pakistan. What matters, however, is the quality of the food, of the results. Is it any good? Are the results positive? If someone says they’re going to change the world, we should ask if they know how to do it. If we’ve learned anything from politicians and pastors; it’s that we need to measure them by the lives they lead and by what they have done, not solely on what they say, by how famous they are, or by the nobility of their intentions.

We aren’t concerned whether the doctor loves her craft, but about whether she makes her patients well. We don’t care about whether the builder hoped to construct the world’s best home, but about whether it keeps out the rain. We don’t excuse the doctor, builder or the chef and we shouldn’t excuse Madonna or Mortensen in something as important as educating vulnerable children in Malawi and Pakistan. Madonna and Mortensen endeavored to help the poor, but pious motivation is no excuse for bad charity. Big dreams don’t matter if you can’t season the chicken or hire a quality waitstaff. 

TOMS Shoes vs. Whole Foods

TOMS Shoes

TOMS Shoes defines cool. These hip slip-ons  are the garnishment of urban hipsters, but even much-less-cool folks like me love when companies give back. The winning equation for TOMS has been the “buy one get one” approach they pioneered: You buy slick kicks…and poor kids get free shoes. This equation has propelled TOMS to corporate superstar status.

All companies practice and celebrate their do-goodism. There’s even a cumbersome title for it–corporate social responsibility (CSR). Analyzing corporate charity models is one of my hobbies. Today’s doing good battle is between TOMS Shoes, the hipster heavyweight, and Whole Foods Market, the granola momma’s utopia.


TOMS: Lots of good, but some areas that could be tweaked. Please: Don’t chuck your TOMS at me just yet. Hear me out.

The good: They connect their product–shoes–to their charity–shoes for poor kids. Rather than supporting something entirely unrelated, like well-drilling in Africa (leave well-drilling to Aquafina and Dasani), TOMS’ charitable endeavors are a foot-in-shoe fit, you might say, with their business.

Needs Improvement: First, though fabulously intended, I’m in the choir of skeptics about the impact of distributing free shoes to poor kids. In short, giving away free stuff, whether its TOMS Shoes, school supplies, or castaway Super Bowl t-shirts, almost always has a negative long-term impact on local economies.

Second, their social mission is sold as an add-on to their business. Like many other companies, they slice off a share of revenue and use that to fund charity. Giving is a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but companies like TOMS celebrate the toppings rather than the sundae itself. They splash a “charity cherry” on top of their business, but often neglect to acknowledge the core contribution they make to society: Providing meaningful jobs and cool shoes to our world.

Whole Foods Market: Though much more nuanced than TOMS, their approach to doing good is “best in class.”

The good: On a recent trip to Whole Foods to buy a bouquet of flowers for Alli, I left deeply impressed with the way their charitable efforts are woven into their core business: Selling healthy, fresh groceries. Rather than highlight their food donations, or the food relief agencies they could financially support, they celebrate the livelihoods they support across the globe and the nutritious goods they provide to their customers. I got this simple flyer with my flower purchase featuring Alfredo, one of the farmers:

Let’s be clear: Whole Foods profits from my purchase. They are not motivated to work with Alfredo solely because they want to help the vulnerable. They work with Alfredo because he grows gorgeous flowers and enables shareholders to earn big returns.

Still, they do business with Alfredo in a redemptive, equitable way, shedding light on the real people–the breeders, bakers and butchers–who produce their groceries. Like Whole Foods, Starbucks shines as a kindred spirit in the way they treat and celebrate their 75,000 coffee farmers.

The verdict: Like TOMS, Whole Foods gives a percentage of their revenue to provide additional support to farmers like Alfredo, but that becomes cursory, their add-on, to the livelihoods they support. Rather than voicing poetic kudos to their corporate tithing, Whole Foods highlights the inherent and more significant value their business brings to our globe. The clear winner? Whole Foods. They do good well.