Can There be a Better Way to Help?

Back in 2007, I had a difficult holiday season.  Only two months before the holidays, my marriage of seventeen years had officially ended in divorce, the job I held for five years left the state, and my sister was being treated for terminal cancer.  Money was tight after paying all the bills, and since I had custody of my daughter, my ex was supposed to pay child support, but had made little effort to do her duty.  My savings dwindled pretty quickly.  It was a depressing and difficult time for me.

My daughter, a talented artist, had taken up photography at the arts magnet school she attended, and she wanted digital camera for Christmas.  In my situation, that was pretty much out of my reach financially.  A pastor at my church talked to some nice people who wanted do something nice for an underprivileged youth, so they bought her a nice camera and gave it to her.  It was a wonderful gesture, and I was happy that she got what she wanted, but it hurt me knowing that I was not able to give her the gift she wanted.

I recently read the book, Toxic Charity, by Robert Lupton.  The book describes how sometimes, the generous acts that we do for others can actually do more harm than the good we want them to do.  He contends that in a number of cases, our generous acts can keep those in need from helping themselves, and often makes them dependent on handouts when they can be better off with hand ups.

An example that hit home for me was a story about annual gift drives that businesses, churches, and civic groups and individuals hold each year during the holidays.  Kind-hearted donors buy new toys and put them in barrels, which are then distributed by those groups to low income children while they watch.  The story he tells takes place in the home of the recipients, and when the guests come to give the children presents, the father of the family leaves the room while the kids open their gifts.  The children acknowledged that the good presents come from the nice rich people, and it hurt the father’s pride knowing he could not provide the gifts they wanted.

Some groups have started doing things differently in the recent years.  Now, instead of delivering the presents directly to the children, parents come into the places where the gifts are kept, pay a small fee that they can afford, and then choose the gifts for their children.  Volunteers and/or the parents then wrap the presents, and the parents are the ones who give the presents to their children.  The children don’t know that the gifts come from someone other than their parents, and the parents don’t need to feel the shame or embarrassment in front of their children.  I personally believe that is a better way of sharing the holiday spirit.

If you are planning on providing gifts to low income children over the holiday season, try to find the organizations that are working this way.  It’s wonderful to share with others, but it really can harm a parent’s self-esteem if it is not done right.

I also think you should read Toxic Charity, if you can.  I found it enlightening, and it didn’t take too long.  It certainly provides some good food for thought.



About greatergoodfundraising

Richard Freedlund has been active in the nonprofit sector in a number of ways, both professionally and as a volunteer. He is the founder of Greater Good Fundraising, a business that helps schools and organizations raise money for their programs while accomplishing something positive for the community. After living in Oregon for 27 years, he has returned to his hometown of Rockford, Illinois and hopes to make his mark on the nonprofit sector there. He is the father of a talented jazz musician and the son of philanthropic parents that continue to support multiple causes. To contact Richard for consulting, fundraising, or speaking opportunities, email or reach him on @ggfundraise
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3 Responses to Can There be a Better Way to Help?

  1. When raising money, charities should maintain a donor-centered orientation. When providing services, charities should maintain a beneficiary-centered orientation. It should almost never be about what is best or easiest for the organization. The organization is merely a facilitator of philanthropy and a conduit for service. As you point out, it’s not just what services are provided that is important, but how those services are provided. When charities are sensitive to the true needs of service recipients, outcomes will be better. When outcomes are better, fundraising will be easier. When fundraising is easier, charities will be able to raise more money. When more money is raised, more people can be helped.

    Thank you for your willingness to share your personal story and insights. You’ve provided a vivid illustration of your point. Now, I’d just like to know, is your daughter a good photographer?

    • She’s an amazing photographer, Michael! But her true passion is her music. I imagine when she puts out her first album, CD, or whatever, she will likely do her own artwork.

      As for my post, it was difficult for me to share such a personal story with so many, but it is also one of the reasons that I am in the field that I am. I have been in the shoes of those that need help, and I want to help them out of their situations and find success.

  2. BrookeM says:

    I read Toxic Charity for the first time last Spring and am chewing on how to take what I’ve learned and apply it this coming December in my children’s ministry. I foresee many hurdles, though, both from the community I serve and those who volunteer with me. It is such a foreign idea to charge the parents for the donated toys.

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