The photo above illustrates the heart-breaking dilemma of Christmas. While part of the world gathers for cozy family celebrations, shops and attends glittering parties, millions of people live in want and squalor.
Christmas, with its emphasis on giving and buying gifts, throws this massive income and opportunity gap into high relief. This photo, taken in a subway in Japan, illustrates that this gap exists in the world’s most prosperous countries as well as developing ones worldwide.
So what’s an aspiring wise man or woman to do? How do we choose from the enormous needs the best way to give aid?
A study of humanitarian efforts by Brigham Young University researchers indicated that the decision of how to give is complicated. The wise men in the Biblical story of Christmas brought expensive gifts that Jesus’ family no doubt found helpful, but the wise men’s visit also brought on the unwelcome attention of King Herod, forcing Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt and launching the slaughter of other less fortunate children in the Bethlehem area. Humanitarian efforts can have similar positive and negative effects today.
Giving is accompanied by concerns about how the money you give is spent and whether it really benefits the needy, whether goods you donate are really needed or become landfill in someone else’s country, and whether the money you give to a homeless person will help them or encourage dependence.
We’ve all had disheartening experiences such as donating the money for a poor family to purchase a cow and then being inundated with glossy pamphlets from the sponsoring organization that cost far more to print than our donation. On a broad scale, foreign non-profit humanitarian aid to developing countries has sometimes been accused of having such a large impact on poor countries’ economies that it has discouraged independence and local economic growth.
The BYU study indicated that few individuals and a minority of charitable organizations test their ideas carefully over time to find out the actual results of their charitable interventions. As a result, they have no idea whether their acts of charity actually did harm or good.
For example, drives to collect used items such as books, electronics and clothing to be sent to poor areas can cost non-profit organizations too much money to transport or be thrown away when they arrive because they are obsolete or not needed. The flood of free stuff can put vendors who sell the same items out of business, impacting the local economy negatively. I had experience with this on a small scale as a teenager when my family's house burned down around Christmas and some people in our community took it as an opportunity to clean out their closets. We were inundated with boxes of second-hand clothes, most of which didn't come close to fitting anyone in our family. "We knew you'd be happy to get anything," people told us as they handed us the boxes. Unfortunately, that isn't true. When people are under stress from a disaster, they have very specific needs and dealing with anything they don't need adds to their stress. In addition to rebuilding our home and sorting through the ashes of our old home, we had to sort through and haul the boxes of clothes to a thrift shop. How we appreciated a thoughtful person who showed up at the site of our burned house, looked it over silently, then asked what size one member of the family wore. The man silently left and returned shortly with a jacket he had just purchased for that person. How we appreciated not just his kindness but his laser focus on a critical need! He wasn't able to do everything, so in the best tradition of gift-giving, he did one thing that solved a critical problem.
I had another first-hand experience with this when talking to a nurse at an orphanage in Beijing, China, that housed 400 children most of whom had severe handicaps. Foreigners living in Beijing had donated boxes of beautiful baby clothes to the orphanage. Pants, bib overalls and rompers were useless for most of the children, who were bed-ridden because of physical or mental impairments. Nurses were responsible for entire rooms of babies who were blind or had other severe handicaps, and what they really needed was simple kimono style robes for the children so that diapers could easily be changed without having to always unsnap or take pants and rompers off. “Why don’t they ask first?” the nurse said.
The study showed that programs such as GiveDirectly.org which transfer funds directly to the impoverished have fewer negative consequences than even microlending, which helps people start businesses but also can create a debt burden and doesn’t address their health needs.
There is almost no evidence that recipients in impoverished countries unwisely use cash they receive. They are likely to save it for the rainy days that happen often in countries with volatile economies. If a local community needs a new school, it can be more cost effective to send money to hire local workers to build it than to transport foreign volunteers to do the building. Provided the money is handled responsibly , the community gets a new school and a stimulus to the economy as the workers spend the wages they earn. Money can buy happiness if you shop in the right places.
The good news about giving internationally is that a little money well directed can go a long way toward solving health problems, so the resources can impact more lives than the same funds would in the United States. The bad news is that international efforts, if not planned wisely, can be inappropriate for the local situation or culture.
As far as helping with disasters, a main factor in whether the efforts are successful is the expertise of those who show up to help. Trained teams of emergency doctors and nurses can save thousands of lives, while untrained volunteers unfamiliar with an area’s culture and challenges can complicate relief efforts.
People who aren’t in a position to travel abroad and provide needed expertise can sometimes have a greater impact by donating funds to organizations that do have that expertise or by supporting local humanitarian efforts instead. Locally, they have an opportunity to observe and improve charitable work as time goes on. These efforts can include volunteering at a local food bank, reading to children in schools, teaching English to new immigrants and helping with community cleanups.
Not all nonprofits are well run, as we discovered over years of working with nonprofits to provide their multimedia needs. They vary widely in terms of the efficiency and skill with which their efforts make it to people in need. An organization called GiveWell.org, which evaluates charitable organizations, can help you decide what organizations to give to.
You are more likely to have positive impact if you concentrate on charitable work that reflects your own skills and interests. Some hair dressers donate hours to non-profits to cut hair for people who can’t afford to pay for it or style wigs to donate to cancer patients. Those with experience teaching are invaluable in tutoring disadvantaged children and immigrants. Doctors and nurses who provide training programs for medical personnel in impoverished countries while doing volunteer surgeries are in demand. A great deal of the charitable work we have been involved in is within our expertise - media design, development and photography. Our professional skills have helped us to create media systems that charitable organizations can sustain long-term using untrained volunteers.
Tips for wise giving:
Carefully pick one or two charitable efforts to help with on a long-term basis. My parents, for example, made a regular donation to the American Heart Association as well as supporting fund-raising efforts of their local fire department.
Help organization that have had a solid track record over time. If you want to help with disasters, organizations to consider donating to or volunteering with are ones that deal with disasters on an on-going basis and are experts in disaster relief. The Red Cross, which responds to a disaster approximately every eight minutes and deals with close to 64,000 disasters a year, has both opportunities to volunteer and to donate. It has many decades of experience and an established system for disaster relief.
LDS Charities provides non-denominational assistance to people in 189 countries in specific areas - clean water, maternal and newborn care, providing wheelchairs, vision care, food-production training and immunizations, in partnership with other relief organizations. This organization’s strength is its extensive international experience, a strong world-wide network of long-term partnerships and volunteers and an emphasis on achieving long-lasting results. Its related organization, Latter-Day Saint Humanitarian Services, provides humanitarian supplies in disaster situations in more than 50 countries and provides an 18-month program to train immigrants and refugees to join the workforce and become independent. This organization was established by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it provides aid to people of all faiths and coordinates its work with a variety or other religious and non-religious aid organizations.
Catholic Relief Services is another organization with a strong worldwide relief network and track record of providing non-denominational assistance to people facing critical food and living needs. Catholic Relief Services also partners with organizations worldwide, including LDS Charities, to provide help for people to overcome emergencies, get affordable health care and improve their ability to earn a living.
Another well-established charity is the Episcopal Relief Fund. This charity concentrates on clean water initiatives, protecting children from malaria, responding to disasters and emergencies and emppowering women through microfinance as well as other initiatives
Build your giving skills over time by assessing the impact of your efforts as you go. Don’t get disillusioned if a particular effort to give isn’t as effective as you would like it to be. Learn from it instead and hone your giving efforts accordingly.
Give to people to help their present and future. Ask people about their challenges and what would help them move forward. People who have limited mobility, for example, find that technology such as iPads are very helpful to keep most of the information they need in one place, but they sometimes don’t have the funds for such an item. Other gifts that work well for them are easy-to-use appliances for preparing food.
Scholarship funds help many talented students develop skills they need for a prosperous future life. Helping a talented student acquire software or pay for a musical instrument or college books and lab fees is another way to invest in their future.
For young families, buying them an experience such as a family pass to a local museum or other fun and educational venue, a National Park pass or a subscription to a publication can be more meaningful than gifts that they tire of quickly after Christmas.
Allow for exceptions. Lots of people, like this homeless child asleep on a curbside in Beijing as a crowd of well-dressed people surrounded him, slip through the cracks. Sometimes what they need today is just a square meal. It doesn't hurt to keep some extra money around for those times when you are presented with an immediate need that only you can or will respond to. In these situations, nobody needs a holiday to have a reason to give.