Confession time: Have you ever had to come up with a fast donation for a food drive and solved the problem by digging around in the back of your cupboards for tins and packets of things you never use?
I used to do it, despite nagging feelings of shame that all I was really doing was dumping things I didn’t want in the first place – cans of kidney beans, stewed tomatoes, cream corn. After I worked at a non-profit and saw just how much unwanted crap got dumped at our door in the name of donations, I put that practice away once and for all.
I was reminded of that today when I poked my head into the storage room at Angelitos Felices children’s home and saw the piles of strange, strange things that people had donated to “help” the kids.
Like stacks of refill pages for those three-ring personal organizers that people used to use back before Blackberries. Homemade scratch pads made from recycled office posters flipped over to their blank sides and glued together at one end. Weird plastic gee-gaws and unknowable objects, scraped from somebody’s pile of discards and packaged up for transport to orphans in Honduras.
I know, I know – people living in poverty are supposed to be grateful for all things, whether it’s another damn tin of tuna for the local food bank or an out-of-date calendar in English for poor families in Latin America. It’s more or less an unspoken rule that anyone who gives away anything is doing a good deed, even if their motivation is less about helping an unfortunate soul and more about ditching something they don’t want.
But really, feeling good about giving away things that you don’t want and have no use to the person receiving them – well, that’s a little lame. That’s a “gift” designed to make the giver feel good without having put a moment’s thought into what might genuinely be of value to the person receiving it. That’s a gift that ends up stacked on a big shelf of useless stuff at an orphanage where so many real needs go unmet.
So how can givers be more effective? It starts with taking the time to find out what the needs are for the group you want to help – or alternatively, assessing what you’ve got to give away and thinking about a group that could really use those items.
When I worked with street-entrenched sex workers at PEERS Victoria, I was ever so grateful to the people who would call first to ask what we needed, and then arrive at our door with the exact things we asked for. I was less grateful to those who arrived with several boxfuls of their late father’s used clothes hidden beneath a thin layer of women’s clothes, as if there might be a hidden population of poorly clothed 80-year-old men working in the Victoria sex trade.
For those who want to give to the developing world, it’s a little more challenging. It might not be as easy as picking up a phone to call someone working at the grassroots level to verify what’s needed. It’s much harder to get your goods to the people who need them. To be effective in a foreign land requires more work.
Work to track down information on who’s doing what, and where, and how much they’re spending on administration to achieve their objectives. Work to ascertain whether it’s better to ship goods because there’s a scarcity in the country, or if the real problem isn’t stuff but a lack of money to buy it. Work to find a contact in the country who you can trust, or a proven organization that’s doing something you really want to support.
But the payback for that initial investigative work is the warm feeling that you’ve donated something that people really need.
Instead of digging out your worn ski jacket and wool pants for your church to ship off to children in the tropics, perhaps you and the rest of the congregation write a small cheque to a non-profit in that country that instead covers the costs of the new shoes the children need a whole lot more. Instead of collecting a few notebooks and pencils to send at great cost to students in a faraway land, you find a way to buy those goods directly in the country – and end up being able to buy even more with the money you save on shipping.
Instead of rummaging around at the back of your pantry for your outdated tins of tomato paste to give to the homeless guy who has neither a can opener or a kitchen, you take fresh fruits and veggies to the local soup kitchen. (And your ski jacket and wool pants, because those guys really could use them.)
We give because we care, of course, and I don’t mean to mock those whose intentions are honorable. But the needs are vast out here in this troubled, complex world. It’s wonderful when people feel the urge to give, but so much more effective when they give the things that truly make a difference.