Being the Change

My mind has been spinning all weekend, thanks to your requests for recommendations on charitable giving – global inequities are so huge, the legacies of wrong so deep, disparities seem so insurmountable. I’ve been writing bits and pieces of blog posts in my head, then consigning them to the mental trash bin because it’s all just too big.

So rather than take on the problems of the world, I thought I’d try to unpack some of the vague recommendations I gave in the last post, and also provide some links.

There are two principles in addressing socioeconomic inequalities that I think are pretty sound: 1) support local initiatives (aka “charity begins at home”), and 2) work together.

1) Charity Begins At Home. When I worked in Bolivia, I often had crises of legitimacy – who was I, as an outsider, to waltz in and tell these women – I worked with rural women’s groups – what they were doing wrong and what they needed to do differently? My very presence – supported by Mennonite churches in the US and Canada – seemed artificial and unsustainable. I came to terms eventually with the positive role an outsider can have, both to bring in fresh ideas and to provide a somewhat neutral sounding-board for people working out interpersonal conflicts – but I never had this legitimacy crisis working in the US, with federally-funded and United Way-funded programs. I felt like it made sense that society had decided to collectivize some of its surplus (through taxes and through charitable giving) in order to redistribute it to people who found themselves in times of crisis or need. There was local ownership and local accountability for how funds were spent.

I wholeheartedly advocate supporting your local United Way, public radio, public library, women’s shelters, food banks, animal shelters, scholarship funds. One of the coolest projects I got involved in during my field research in the US was a scholarship fund for local Latino students, where the emphasis was very strongly on recruiting funds from Latino businesses and families. All they asked for was $20 a month, so that even Latino families working on the slime line at the poultry plant would be able to contribute to sending one of their own to college.

(…there’s a caveat here, that I haven’t quite finished formulating yet, about global responsibilities, because like it or not our economies and societies are linked in intricate ways, and that needs some parsing out yet. Future post.)

2) Working Together. I think a lot of times, as Jjiraffe pointed out, we feel overwhelmed by all the badness in the world, and it  seems impossible to think that I could make a difference. Which is why I think a lot of the save-a-starfish kind of programs are appealing – at least I made a difference to this one person that I sponsored, or mentored, or tutored, or sent a Christmas package to. And that’s cool. Yet I worked for a mentoring organization that had as their slogan something along the lines of “one child at a time,” and was glad when they changed it, because it made me want to scream, “that’s not fast enough!”

Even organizations that do take that approach – building one house at a time, loaning one goat at a time – are realizing that the needs are growing at a rate that far outpaces the one-at-a-time giving and building. Most organizations are taking broader, systems-wide approaches, seeking to work with governments or at the very least with coalitions of organizations that can partner together on a larger scale.

This is what I used to tell my husband’s students, when he taught international development to undergraduates and they’d get all depressed and hopeless and he’d ask me to come in and cheer them up: Join something. Find a network, an organization, a movement, and join up. Your individual efforts won’t do much, honestly, but multiplied by 1,000 you can collectively move mountains. So really the “social media for social good” approach is absolutely spot-on, it’s taking a platform you have and using it to increase the love, the compassion, the humanism, and the goodness in this world.


I started wigging out yesterday afternoon while mentally spinning my wheels over all of these issues – and I don’t feel like I’ve finished saying everything that I have to say on this topic, but I don’t want this post to get too long – I started seeing all the things I do and aspects of my life that are NOT in line with the principles I believe in. The environmental piece is part of this, for example, and how we drink bottled water and all our kitchen waste goes into a dumpster. I’ve cut back drastically on our consumption of meat, thanks to a vegan FB friend, and we don’t currently own any kind of motorized vehicle – we can be almost completely pedestrian here – but I’m still not at ease in my mind over how we live.


And now some links:

Coincidentally, just this week Jezebel had a nifty little guide on charitable giving. Skip to the comments for a great discussion on giving cash vs. material gifts.

The Global Journal also put out a list of their top 100 non-government organizations here; some that I have first-hand experience with and can vouch for personally include Habitat for Humanity, Heifer Project International, CARE International, and Save the Children. Habitat and Heifer are both forms of microcredit (affordable mortgages, and animal loans, respectively). Microcredit programs directed specifically towards women are very popular, I don’t know a whole lot about them, they’ve been quite successful in India, less so in some other parts of the world. Any kind of credit represents a risk, so there is that.

What are your thoughts? What organizations or initiatives do you support, and why?  


8 Responses to “Being the Change”

  1. Wordgirl Says:

    Thank you so much for this E! I love your writing and your smarts and your thoughtfulness … it is such an enormous thing — and I find myself sometimes just retreating back into my own little world…but, like you, (and I fear far more than what you’ve described here) the choices that govern our day to day lives are not aligned with the larger picture. I knew that the moment we moved to the car-centered suburbs — even though its an inner-ring suburb — still…we recycle and I try to keep our consumption to a minimum — but it’s still not enough — we drive, we’re meat eaters — we don’t seriously curb our energy consumption. That’ what I’ve been dancing around in my posts I guess — is how to realign things — how to make daily choices that reflect the world I believe in and want to live in.

    Actually this is a perfect time for me to share this because I had an epiphany yesterday as G and I were driving to my mother’s — I realized that my creative work was never really the thing, in the end, that I felt proudest of — my mentors in grad school not really mentors — the truest mentor of my life is a woman who hired me to teach poetry in a non-profit to kids — and though it wasn’t targeted specifically to kids in need — Missoula drew from so much of the rural poor that it ended up being just that — and I realized that for so long I wanted to continue that work — of a non-profit literary organization that brought poetry into women’s shelters, to kids in need, to prisons — because there’s hope in poetry — and beauty — and there is something poetry touches that nothing else can…and so, for me, here in the U.S. — that’s what I was thinking may be my mission after all — to go back to my heart’s work.

    It’s easy, and perhaps human, to retreat into our daily lives and unplug for a bit…and then when we recharge — re-enter the world…at least that’s what I have to tell myself.


    Love this post, and I admire you and your husband’s life and work,


    • Elizabeth Says:

      and poetry can create an opportunity to voice, to say what may be too difficult to say in plain speech, maybe.

      So cool.

      Reminds me of more stories I want to tell – about NGOs creating spaces for people to find new ways to express themselves.

      And I do think that “to everything there is a season” – I have vague memories of reading of a Buddhist teaching along these lines, somewhere, about a season of life for being a student, another season for being a parent, another season for being a worker, another for being a contemplative – the idea that we don’t have to do all of it all at the same time. There’s something really freeing in that notion, for me at least.

  2. St. Elsewhere Says:

    You are quite bullseye on several issues.

    I think I have already answered something similar on one of BabySmiling’s posts.

    I don’t really spend a lot of money on charity. But then, there are indirect means that I take to help organizations that are actually working towards the social issues, for example purchasing greeting cards that support child relief, or are meant for supporting/welfare of handicapped artists. There is an organization called CRY, and they raise money in several ways…one of them being retailing greeting cards, and that is such a nice way of helping them…or supporting cards made by artists who use their mouth or feet, because they have lost the ability to use their hands for different reasons, in making works of art.

    There happens to be a organizations that consistently receives financial support from us and that is the SOS Children’s Villages. I visited one of them, and saw their model of caring for the orphaned children. Hubby and I contribute to supporting the education of a girl there. It was in reference to this place that I had quoted about the gift-sending.

    Working on local roots is important. I honestly feel, and completely on my own, that in my country, lot of foreigners give away money on things that are epidemics in their own country rather than what is the core trouble here. AIDS charities receive more money when more lives are lost to TB and malnourishment. And then there is the glamour. Celebrities regularly stop by and give shoutouts about AIDS – Richard Gere, the Gates Foundation….

    • Elizabeth Says:

      There are so many great ways to support causes, I would love to talk more about shopping with a conscience.

      And your point about local roots and the skewed perspective that foreigners can have is so, so true. Thank you.

  3. St. Elsewhere Says:

    Jeez, My English sucks!

  4. Rachel Says:

    This was such a thought provoking post and I kept wanting to come back later, but I’m scared I’ll forget. I definitely feel overwhelmed at times about how much help is needed in the world, and how little I actually do to help.

    Most of our charitable giving is through our church, I like that I can meet the people we are helping through donations both financially and with time. I’m hesitant to donate to organizations that I don’t know much about, I don’t like it when I make a small donation and later I’m bombarded with slick advertising when I know that money could be helping someone (even when overhead costs of the organization are kept low). I think it is important to teach our kids not just to give money to people who need it, but also time. And even though we do most of our monetary giving through church, we do help others out, outside of church. One of the things I love most about my husband is how he helps others without thinking about it, he just does it.

    I really like Habitat; my husband and I have helped on a couple of different builds and we support our Restore whenever we can both by shopping there and taking household goods there. My heart though is for the ministries we support that help children, especially orphans.

    While I agree that systemic change does the most good overall, I have felt the most blessed at times when I have seen an individual who needed help, and met that need with something that cost me very little, but to them was a huge deal.

    Your cultural perspectives are very interesting. My grandfather has spent some time in the Ukraine and told me recently about visiting He wanted to do something nice to thank their local contacts so he took them out for ice cream. He said it was the equivalent of about a dollar per person and one woman was highly offended that he was being so extravagant and refused to accept it. He thought it was a small gesture but it ended up having the opposite effect of what he had hoped.

    • Elizabeth Says:

      Rachel, thanks for the long and thoughtful comment. I often think that churches have perhaps the primary responsibility, as organizations, for looking for ways to meet human need.

      You gave me a lot more to think about here! I’ll have to come back to this when I have more time. Your story about the Ukraine is so interesting – giving and receiving gifts (time, money, food, anything) is such a complex cultural practice, items become symbols, meanings shift, what has value in one place has more or less in another. So interesting.

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