By Rebecca Lujan Loveless

If you know me at all, you will not be surprised that I am consistently tweeting, facebooking, blogging or just talking loudly in public about practices that might seem good on the surface but, when the curtain is pulled back, reveal something other.  This blog post is about that.

If you're anything like me, even if it's hidden deep within the recesses of your heart, you have a desire to make a difference in the world when it comes to those suffering under the weight of poverty.  I have chosen to make this quest a part of my daily life by choosing a career in which I research and apply best practices of healthy and effective ways to see that change occur. But I realize that this path is not for everyone, and I get that for most, helping the poor is a matter of discipline and sacrifice.

I have a friend who said to me, “I'm not like you.  The poor make me anxious and sad.”

In her honesty, even she tries, in her own way, to do her part to alleviate the burden of poverty.  So whether you sponsor a kid in Africa or volunteer a few times a year at a food pantry, most of us are at least thinking that we'd like to help.

So we pay attention to commercials, tweets, magazine articles, blogs or recommendations of friends who tout their organization of choice that is helping the poor.  From education to ending hunger, AIDS to malaria, homelessness to home repair, we are drawn to causes that stir our emotion.  More than that though, I'm convinced that unconsciously, we are drawn to causes that seem easy to fix.

The suffering of others makes us feel uncomfortable, so we race to fix it in ways that make sense to us: Buy a pair of shoes, and someone else's kid will get a free pair.

 “Ahhh,” we sigh with relief, “I feel better knowing I did my part.”  But did we? Watch this video to see what I mean.

Recently, a friend of mine was tweeting about a popular web-based non-profit that is feverishly working to give away products, services and cash to those who need it.  I wanted to have an informed conversation with her about why she chose to support this particular organization, so I went to the website to read up.  I combed through every page, every emotionally stirring story, all the FAQ's about how to give and how it works.

My hunch was that this organization hadn't spent much time researching dignified ways of building relationships with giver and receiver.  I guessed that there was not a thorough process to truly understand the nature of the needs, and therefore truly understand the most effective sustainable solutions.

My hunch was right.  Nowhere on the website did it address reciprocity, giving and receiving, or HOW the organization approaches vetting the needs.  So I inquired.  I sent an email to “hello@such&such.org.”  Here is a sample of a few of the questions (I have changed some of the exact wording to keep the organization anonymous):

  • Can I have access to the system that you use to vet potential needs?
  • What standard/s do you use to understand the nature of the needs you meet?
  • Is there a way to follow up with the recipient after their need has been met?
  • Is there evidence to support that the $ raised is contributing to lasting transformation?  If so, what measurements are used to produce the evidence?
  • Is there a platform for relationships to be formed between giver and receiver?
  • What is expected of the receiver in the process?

After a month of not hearing back from anyone, I emailed it again, thinking perhaps it got lost out there in the interwebs.  Within an hour, I a got a response from the founder of the organization.

I will spare you the details of his snarky response, but let's just say that he did not “have time or capacity to answer my questions” and was not at all thrilled that I was asking these questions in the first place.  After a few back and forth emails, he asked if we could speak over the phone.  We set up a time to talk.  He never called.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not unusual.  When I question the methods and philosophy of any giving organization, I am typically met with defensiveness, dismissive language and a general incredulity that I would question the integrity of the leader/founder/staff, etc.

I coach and consult non-profits toward dignified service that promotes healthy relationships between giver and receiver, and asking probing questions is a part of my nature. I wish more people would do a healthy examination of the organizations they support with their money, time or tweeting power.  It takes more time and effort up front, but perhaps if we all started doing it, organizations would be more intentional about educating themselves and others on the best ways to help the people that they feel called to help.

Blindly trusting that your money, time, skills, or tweeting power is automatically going to make a positive difference contributes to factors such as dependency, self-sufficiency, paternalism between the haves and have-nots and may, in fact, be making the plight of those you wish to help worse.

If you are squirming in your seat, feeling flushed and ready to fire off an email or message me – or better yet, post on my wall for all to see – just take a second to think about this.

I know you want to be a good steward of your resources.  I know that you care about others.  I also know that for the most part, you may not have spent a ton of time researching best practices of dignified service to the poor.  I have.

Believe me, I can speak with a deep conviction on this because I used to blindly support “good” causes, too.  I was addicted to the idea of giving and helping the poor and had no actual idea if my efforts were doing what I set out to do.

I will never forget the first time a beautiful Malawian woman point-blank told me that my giving demeaned and disempowered her and her people. It was shocking to me that my good intentions were not enough.  I am still learning, and my philosophies are fluid and still have plenty of growing space.

But what I do know is that asking good questions will lead to smarter aid.

I believe we can make a difference if we do it with wisdom and maturity.

Next time a cause catches your fancy, by all means, look in to it!  You are drawn to that cause for a reason.  But ask questions!

You can start by taking a look at the questions I posed above and revise them to fit the purposes of the cause you want to support.  Or create your own questions that will help you understand the “hows” and “whys” of what that organization does.

Tell your friends on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter all about the cause you are supporting.  Better yet, tell them how you vetted the organization so you can stand with confidence that you are partnering with a thoughtful, intelligent and dignified cause that empowers lasting change.

Here are a few more questions that might get you started:

  • Who is involved in the decision making process in your organization?
  • Does the recipient get a say in the how, when and where goods and services are distributed?
  • Are the solutions being applied from inside the problem or outside the problem?
  • Whose idea was this solution?
  • What will happen when my funds/time/skills have been applied?  What is the follow-up process?

There are many, many more questions.  If you work in the development arena, I'd love to hear your suggestions of other good questions to ask when seeking to support a cause. I'd love to hear the responses you get when you start asking.

Either way, may you feel empowered to know, truly know, that you are a part of something healthy and beautiful.

Happy Asking!

Rebecca Lujann Loveless is the executive director of Polis Institute. She can be reached at rebeccalujanloveless@gmail.com.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-lesson course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.