Monday, September 24, 2007

"Throwing money"--NOT!

Often when I meet with groups who express an interest in either helping us do our work or in developing their own strategies for responding to the challenges of poverty, someone will say something like, "We want to do more than just 'throw money' at the problems! We really want to get involved. You know, hands on to make a real difference."

Every time I hear this sentiment, I cringe. Sometimes, depending on my mood, I challenge this thinking.

In the first place, let me be clear here, no one that I know of is "throwing money" at poverty or its presenting problems and challenges. If anything, people are extracting their funds, cutting back and trying not to spend money on the urban poor. This is true of both the public and private sectors.

Many thoughtful and committed individuals, groups, foundations, corportations and government bodies are deciding to invest their limited funds in people, groups and initiatives that make a measurable difference.

Second, there are times when hands-on involvement by outside volunteers is very helpful.

But, let's be honest here. Often when people of material means, who live outside the communities where poverty rules, talk about "making a real difference," they are unwittingly referring to the difference such involvement makes in their own lives more than in the life of an impoverished community. At their best, these desires have to do with making an authentic connection with the poor and the forces of poverty. Such connections can be transformative.

More common is the "feel good" experience of a service project--a clearly defined event with a beginning and an end.

Years ago some wag told me, "After all is said and done, more is said than done!"

I've observed the truth of this proverb in the inner city.

So, let the volunteers come. Let the projects move forward. Let's work together on mutually agreeable terms, understanding that at the end of every day much will remain to do.

And, in the mean time, let the money flow! As a matter of fact, I'm hoping someone will step up and throw all the money they can our way!

As Sister Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, said, "You can't do much good, or avoid much evil wihtout money."



Parke said...

Some good thoughts here. As a leader in a faith community and a pr writer for a different non-profit, I see both sides.

"an authentic connection with the poor and the forces of poverty"

I guess this is the elusive goal, eh? I've served alongside ministries to the poor in three states and across a number of lines over the last 20-some years of my life and it's not always there when we serve.

Now, as a leader trying to encourage friends to serve non-profits with their time and money, I feel that question of end result more and more. After all, my role in the community of faith is to not only serve the hurting in the target program, but also to facilitate transformation in the life of the people I call to action.

I guess I wish sometimes that when non-profits asked for help there was a more noticeable recognition of both of those things. I've tried to do that as I promote the non-profit I work for, but it seems fairly rare these days.

Larry James said...

Parke, thanks for this. It occurs to me that the issue of money is central to this discussion.

Think about it in another way. When people with adequate funds need something, what do they usually do? They pay for exactly what they need--they hire people who will accomplish what is needed, not on the terms of those delivering the service, but as directed by those with the money.

The poor, individually and as neighborhoods, don't usually have this freedom to direct. They are basically at the mercy of the well-funded volunteers who do what they do, often on their own terms. We spend our time "brokering" these monetary resources in a different manner, in a way that respects the materially poor, their wishes, visions and their community. Sometimes people with money don't appreciate our point of view.

It is not a bad thing to simply provide funding, if that is what is needed. Being mature enough to let your contribution flow without conditions can be a spiritual break through.

And, there are other things people with money and influence can do--like advocate for better systemic realities to help liberate the poor from their difficult circumstances.

Parke said...

I don't think we really disagree here. Giving without strings to people in a position to make wise use of the money is a godly thing. In essence, my work is built around doing this.

I think what I'm suggesting is that more people need to use technologies like this blog of yours to help people take steps towards this understanding.

I'm not sure when I'll ever be considered mature (maybe never ;), but I know it's a journey for most folks. And sadly I've seen what seems to be a fatigued sense of the ministry of helping people walk to that understanding. Jumping in the deep end will only work with a few.

If this is all partially true, then perhaps the issue sometimes is not so much one of money, but a heart understanding.

chris said...

I think there are reasons to be careful in the distribution of money. Take the public schools for example. In a lot of cases they are a complete failure with so much political correctness involved. The government, in many cases,does not always oversee expenditures closely. After all, it's not their money and they can always raise taxes.

Karen said...

Sorry, Chris, but I don't think the major problem with the public schools is their "political correctness."

chris said...


I would challenge you to research it a little more.

Anonymous said...

I fully agree that government does not always spend money very wisely. That's almost a truism. But it is inaccurate to say they don't care about how they spend money because they "can always raise taxes." The political reality is that they cannot. So, if government wastes money, it is wasting money that could have been better spent, and chances are no more is coming down the pike. Thus, it is the would-be receipients, in many cases the poor, who will generally suffer due to the misspent funds.

Charles said...

Chris, you made the claim. Please let us know the double-blind peer-reviewed research your political correctness assessment is based on. Editorials from the Heritage Foundation don't count for either side.

jocelyn said...


I would love to have your insight on how to help get young, educated, middle class people like me and my Bible class involved in effective service. We are actually doing a study on what it looks like to be a Christian in our Dallas culture by looking at the ways the church has traditionally been countercultural. So of course, service is one area we will be focusing on in a few weeks.

We would love to have our class participate together in service to the community, but my husband and I (who are co-teaching) are so wary to do a traditional "service project" where a bunch of wealthy 20-somethings show up for one day of bonding with each other. But we also don't just want to TALK about service in our Bible class and just leave it at that. We want to try to go into the community in some way and do something. What would you suggest?


Larry James said...

Jocelyn, your question is a good one, but difficult. The challenge here relates to what is possible in the process that is most likely going to be manageable from the perspective of your class or any group like it seeking an answer. What you are aiming for sounds like an authentic experience with people who have needs related to their chronic impoverishment. To experience that will involve an ongoing commitment of time and disruption of schedules.

For example, your class could volunteer in our Haskell Avenue Resource Center every Saturday for, say a quarter of your Sunday School experience--that is 13 weeks, every Saturday from 9:00 AM til about 2 PM. You would help low income neighbors in the center distribute food and talk to other neighbors coming to seek assistance with any number of things. You would get to know the people of the community over that time period. And, you would get to know each other out of your class better in the process.

The problem with short term projects is that they are just that. Not always bad, but just limited in what they accomplish and produce given your expectations.

Bottom line: there is no short cut to authentic community engagement, as you so well know.

There are other possibilities related to children, mentoring, property clean up, technology, work force training, foster kids, etc. But all require long term commitments to achieve the outcome you suggest. Thanks for asking!

Larry James said...

Chris, I'd love to hear you give an example of the dread "political correctness" about which you are so concerned. Could you provide that for us?

Anonymous said...

I'm a different Chris. And, on behalf of other Chris's across this nation, we do not endorse the previous Chris's comments. He is ignorant and misdirected.

I previously taught high school science, and I doubt that the previous Chris has much experience with education (besides what he hears from Rush). The underpaid, overworked, and unsupported teachers are not hampered by 'political correctness.' They are hampered by unsupportive families who do not value education. They are hampered by people like 'Chris' who do not value the valiant effort teacher, principals, counselors, and administrators are making to educate our youth. They are hampered by the lack of value our culture has put in providing an excellent education for ALL children.

I'm sorry if that wasn't PC, but Chris, you anger me.