The very planet that we share is inhabited by human beings living in destitute poverty. And the most influential institutions that have been set up to help those human beings often end up harming them instead. This is because the interests of charitable institutions and their donors have been prioritized over the interests of the poor. Here are 8 ways that all involved in charitable work can reform their current practices so that the interests of the poor are given priority over the interests of donors and institutions:
8 Ways To Prioritize The Poor
(1) Charities should be meritocracies
Charities rarely earn donations based on merit. More often, they raise money based on branding and relationships. For example, the CEO of the Red Cross might talk to the CEO of Starbucks and ask if they could advertise at their cash registers after a hurricane. This special relationship creates an enormous fundraising opportunity for an organization with a notoriously poor track record. Similarly, celebrities are more likely to partner with name brand charities as opposed to those which prove to be maximally effective. This improperly incentivizes charities to became masters at marketing and networking, which has very little correlation to being effective at serving the poor.
Pushing charities to act more meritocratic will cause them to compete for maximal flourishing in the lives of the poor instead of competing for the best fundraising opportunities.
(2) Charities should be scrutinized
Pointing out the inadequacies of a charity is about as popular as saying you don’t like puppies. Society will let you do it, but they won’t like it. It seems that this is mostly because people correlate pointing out the negatives of an organization with an attempt to undermine the positives. But what actually happens is charities are largely not held accountable for their ineffective and often counter-productive work. And no one notices because the only people impacted by this unhealthy dynamic are those without a voice who are living in destitute poverty on the other side of the world.
Scrutinizing charities across the board will cause the ineffective ones to crumble and the partially effective ones to be better.
(3) Donors should be educated
Some people have seen extreme poverty, face to face, living and breathing right in front of them. Most have not and have no way of conceptualizing it. This creates a situation where donors give money to a mystery box and are then told by a magician that their donations are being turned into aid. In their ignorance, they have no choice but to hope that this is the case, which furthers the unaccountability that charities have enjoyed for so long.
Educating donors will allow a broader network to hold charities accountable for their work.
(4) Conversations about poverty alleviation should be encouraged
I dare you to bring up anything charity related around someone who has even the slightest experience in development work. You’re essentially inviting the “expert” to critique you on how little you know. This elitism discourages mainstream conversation about poverty alleviation and encourages the general public to opt-out of further learning about charitable work.
Encouraging development-related conversations will serve to create more widespread interest in donor education.
(5) Communication should be opened up between donors and aid recipients
Charities often act as the intermediary between donors and the poor. Donors are told the poor are being helped and the poor are given aid without ever providing feedback back to the donors. The charity serves as judge, jury, and executioner with little to hold them accountable besides the occasional internal audit. Instead of being incentivized to effectively serve the poor, they are instead incentivized to favorably spin their efforts in the best light possible back to their donors.
Opening up transparent communication between donors and aid recipients will hold charities accountable to protecting the interests of the poor.
(6) Compassion should not be extracted out of poverty alleviation
The most common charitable transaction goes as follows: a donor sends money to an institution which then pays an employee to distribute the aid. The compassion of helping those in need was mechanized and institutionalized so long ago that we can’t remember it ever being any different. This has trained donors to care more about superficial results, like getting their name on a building, and less about the truly meaningful results of serving those in desperate need.
Restoring compassion to the charitable act will cause the relationship between donor and aid recipient to flourish by encouraging long term partnerships instead of singular transactions.
(7) Charity should be the responsibility of the individual.
Brand names are powerful because they have the ability to tell a story and provide a feeling using just a logo. The mistake we make in trusting institutions is quickly forgetting that it is individual people who are responsible for helping those in need. If people on the ground fail, then the poor aren’t helped. Faith in institutions has served as a protection mechanism from individuals being held accountable for their effectiveness.
Understanding the responsibility of the individual will establish a healthier ecosystem where people, and not brands, are working to serve the poor.
(8) The poor should be given a voice
We seldom dwell on the stories of those living in extreme poverty. They make us uncomfortable by disrupting the flow of our often materialistic lifestyles. But their stories enrich our lives and help us be more in touch with the reality that the world is still a harsh place for billions of human beings. Human beings that matter and whose integration into our lives can provide us with deep meaning.
Giving the poor a voice will serve to educate donors, hold charities accountable and remind people why they should get involved in charity in the first place.
How To Join The Charity Reformation
The only way this movement is successful is with an educated base. Passionate efforts have cropped up in the past only to soon be swallowed up by valid criticisms. Reform cannot and should not happen overnight, but by the gradual progress of dedicated individuals who daily strive for a better world. As a starting point, peruse the resources in this tweet.
Vote with your money
For better or worse, we live in a society that pays careful attention to one thing: money. Refuse to support organizations that are disinterested in reforming charity. Instead, support those who are most interested in giving primacy to the poor. The market will listen. As a starting point, consider supporting DonorSee directly which is an organization working hard on the 8 tenets above.
Give the poor a platform
It’s difficult to understand our place in the world and the potential responsibility that comes with it. As is usually the case, the difficult things are often the best things. And working hard to promote the voices of those from the bottom half of the world will have far reaching benefits to all involved. As a starting point, consider promoting and hosting conversations with those who can articulate extreme poverty (see this and this).
I would like to invite you to bring charity reform into mainstream conversation. Don’t listen to those who try to police your language or make you feel foolish for your ideas. These conversations need to get out there, and the only way that will happen is if a small group of brave individuals decide that these issues are worth facing. As a starting point, consider hosting a discussion on the 8 tenets above.
The Charity Reformation emboldens the crazy idea that the poor should be considered first in the world of charity. An idea that is so commonsense that it will likely be met with derision by those who stand to lose from this new paradigm. Thankfully, because of the internet, we live in a time where commonsense ideas stand a fighting chance. As a starting point, consider sharing this article on social media.
I want to thank you for taking the time to consider these ideas and the weight that they have. An institutional stranglehold on charity has been spreading like a virus for decades and the negative consequences have been imperceptible to nearly everyone but the bottom half of the world.
This will not change and will continue to get worse if nothing is done. Join us in our efforts to reform charity by restoring the primacy of the poor. Join the Charity Reformation.
**UPDATE** I made a video further commenting on this post.