The Charitable Impulse: Part 7

Money PitLet’s look again more locally.  I recently had the privilege of joining the Board of United Way.  This has been an interesting journey, as I started as a front-line worker in a United Way funded agency, frustrated by the administrative time investment required to demonstrate outcomes to this funder, and now find myself in the position of demanding this work of our funded programs.

One of the important things I have learned is that no charity has an inherent right to limited charitable resources because of the power of its mission statement.  Take a hypothetical organization that provides clothing to people experiencing homelessness in order to assist them in obtaining employment (any similarity to existing organizations is entirely coincidental; I am simply making an illustration).  There can be a very powerful message here as employment is the only long-term solution to fully exiting poverty in our society.  This organization can receive, manage, and distribute massive amounts of quality business clothing to people in abject need.  However, if the people receiving the clothing aren’t particularly employment-ready, and actually have only a 3% employment rate post-receipt of a donation, the quality of the model is called into question.  The charity might excuse itself, saying that at least they are still giving clothing to people who need it, but is this the clothing they need?  Is this the most efficient model if we are just going to fall back on giving clothes?  And didn’t you sell your donors on making people employable?

In the hypothetical scenario provided above, I believe that two things should happen: First, the charity should be provided all the assistance they need to better achieve the outcomes of their mission statement.  Second, in the case that they are unable or unwilling to change to obtain the outcomes, I don’t think that dollars should (or likely will) go their way.  The organization might put out a plea to the public for funds, and people might wring their hands that there will be less opportunities for people who are experiencing homeless to get good jobs, but there is a false leap of logic that this organization, in this format, is actually shifting the needle in any significant way.

So, outcomes do matter.  When we have that charitable impulse, and want to help, and it’s not for the pat on the back, and with no expectation of ‘appropriate’ thanks for recipients, we can do so, and we can do it well.  This is done by being very clear about the mission that we want to achieve, understanding the complexities of the pathway to getting there, and being committed in the long-term to getting it right.  Take for example the Unity Project homeless shelter.  Like any other shelter, Unity Project provides people a safe place to stay.  However, their mission is also to transition people through housing solutions.  So, you might see a resident pushing a broom, or working at a desk at the shelter.  Reporting to a funder that “17 residents did 43 hours of broom pushing time” would be silly, but if these life skills opportunities help residents transition from emergency shelter, to transitional housing, to independent living, then the outcome has been achieved.

The Charitable Impulse: Part 6

So far in this series I have presented a rather gloomy tale. We do charity for ourselves, or in a disorganized manner, or in a way that actually undermines development, and unintentionally makes things worse. However, in the next few posts I will look at how there is still room for charity, development, social services, and the non-profit sector in general.

The good news is that although we can do things wrong, we can also do them right. In their annual letter, Melinda and Bill Gates break down many of the myths of international development, and in the process start to set the foundation for a discussion of how charity can be done well. The first myth the Gates break down is the myth that the world is getting worse. In fact, there has been a huge positive move on global poverty, with the number of people experiencing extreme poverty being cut in half from 2 billion to 1 billion people. A significant portion of this has happened in African nations, defying perceptions of sub-Saharan Africa as being immune to development. Life expectancy in even the poorest regions of the world has increased from 41 to 57 years. This video by Hans Rosling shows how quickly nations in poverty are developing and catching up:

In addressing the second myth of foreign aid as a waste of resources, the Gates unpack how development is being done well. Aid can be delivered in a manner that builds an independent economic foundation rather than increasing dependence on foreign resources. Aid can address root needs around vaccination, illness prevention, and violence that hold nations back from developing. Aid can serve to address policies of inequality that prevent women from being safe, secure, and financially independent. Aid done well does not equate to dependence, as many of the primary recipients of aid in the past decade are now aid providers.

Charity can be two-pronged: it can address the basic needs that are the foundation required for people to then advance their lives, but at the same time it can produce opportunity. An ill child requires malaria treatment to survive, and at the same time needs opportunities for education and employment. Charity/aid/development can do this, and do it well.

The Charitable Impulse: Part 5

Toronto slumHomelessness is a relatively new problem in Canada.  Pre-1970, homelessness as we know it did not exist.  There was some transience, people who rode the rails and drank, but if you were poor and situated in a community for any period of time you stayed in the slums.  These were not pretty places, but you had a roof over your head.  Through the 1970s there was a move for human rights and to enhance municipal housing standards, and the slums were shut down.  Knowing that this will mean people need a place to stay, the federal government invested heavily in social housing.  136,000 social housing units are developed to replace the slums, the most social housing we ever built in Canada at one time.

Enter the 1980s and all orders of government significantly dial back or completely stop building new social housing.  Through the ‘80s we have the rise of homelessness as we know it today, people situated in one community for an extended period of time being unable to obtain safe, secure, affordable, and permanent housing.  So we have people on the streets.  The public sees this and responds.  The response is a charitable impulse, a good one, a desire to ensure that no one has to sleep rough in our communities.  So we start building shelters.  By 1990 there are 400 shelters in Canada, and by 2014 there are 1,100 shelters providing 150,000 Canadians with a place to sleep.

Homelessness is now entrenched in our communities.  A significant portion of our public dollars to address homelessness goes towards managing people while they are in an experience of homelessness, versus preventing or ending homelessness.  Don’t misunderstand me, both the intent and the function of shelters are very good; we will always need spaces of transition for those in crisis.  The problem arises when shelters become the primary response to homelessness as opposed to safe, secure, affordable, and permanent housing.  As the long-term outcomes of staying in shelter are primarily negative, if this becomes the journey for most, we can expect the kind of outcomes we are seeing in terms of chronicity, poor health, and poor social outcomes.

So herein lies the problem: We can respond to social problems in our communities in a manner that meets the immediate need, but actually makes the problem harder, overall, to address.  In responding to homelessness we have somehow forgotten that ending homelessness is the goal, and all pieces of the system must be designed to optimize this goal.

The Charitable Impulse: Part 4

SoupIt’s a beautiful gesture, warm soup in the cold, lonely days between Christmas and New Year’s.  This article in the London Free Press details the kind, charitable outreach of Craig Abel and Sandy Faugh, serving soup to those experiencing homelessness, in collaboration with Mission Services of London.  A quick search on Google shows that this is no solitary event for Abel and Faugh, but that their charity and kindness extend to various programs and agencies throughout the community.  We read this story, feel glad that there are good people in our community, and simply wish there were more like them.

What does this meal of soup mean in the context of those experiencing homelessness, struggling to make ends meet on $626 per month of social assistance?  It means a lot.  It means a lot because with $626 per month, and average market rent for a bachelor apartment in London being $575, getting out of shelter into housing leaves one with simply not enough money to eat.  Therefore, the food bank, soup kitchens, church meal programs, and these free bowls of soup become a necessary part of the struggle for survival, the struggle that involves walking around all day, each day, from agency to agency, program to program, just to meet the basic necessities.

So it means a lot.  But…

There’s always a ‘but’…

But what does this change?  It doesn’t change tomorrow, and the fact that the hunger will return and there will be no more money until the end of the month.  It doesn’t change that hunger in Canada is a poverty issue.  It doesn’t change one’s ‘food insecure’ status.  It does change one thing though: it makes it a tiny bit easier for governments to shirk their responsibility for citizens most in need, knowing that the charitable impulse will kick in, just enough to keep people alive.

Governments have begun to outlaw soup trucks, for very different reasons, with very different outcomes.  In places like Florida, soup trucks have been outlawed and public feeding of people experiencing homelessness outlawed, because these are seen as increasing vagrancy and decreasing safety in core neighbourhoods.  This is foolishness, criminalizing poverty.  In the UK, soup trucks outside are also being outlawed, but for a good reason.  In response to the Olympics (ok, not the purest of motivations), London established 24/7 drop-in centres throughout the community where food and shelter from the elements are always available.  With these services in place, they began to ban outdoor soup trucks where people were forced to line up in the rain and sleet, and instead encourage the organizations delivering these services to just partner with the drop-in centres, where people could access the food in a safe, comfortable, and well-staffed environment that also provided people with access to other supports.

Is it possible that the best of motivations may not necessarily lead to the best outcomes?  Does a band-aid put on and left too long actually cause a wound to fester?  In the next post I will talk about homelessness, and one step forward with three steps back.

The Charitable Impulse: Part 3

housingSeven years ago and Melissa and I are buying our house.  It’s a fixer-upper, and, following in the footsteps of my father-in-law, we have dreams of renovating, flipping, and starting to build a rental portfolio.  I imagine becoming a landlord offering affordable housing to those looking to exit the street.  Not only will I be addressing homelessness in my work-life, but I will also be able to put my renovation hobby to work to end homelessness in a practical way one person at a time.

Of course, along came three children who greatly altered our timelines, budgets, and goals, but I recently ran into this dream again.  I was talking to a very thoughtful and charitable lady who was doing pretty well in life, and was thinking of developing income properties.  Like my dream, hers included having a portion of the units offered as affordable housing.  She would be the landlord, and be able to offer housing to those ready to leave the shelters or the streets.

One might assume that I would be excited by this vision but instead I felt only cautiously optimistic.  I was optimistic because our London Housing Strategy requires partners from the private sector to get involved.  However, I was cautious because I was concerned that this kind-hearted individual might get burned.  There are many tenants requiring affordable housing who would be considerate, thankful, and always pay on time.  But, there also might be tenants who would be aloof, unkind, and late with payments.  And lastly, there might be a few tenants who would take the copper pipes out of the walls, sell drugs from the unit, and disappear without ever paying.  I was picturing this thoughtful lady putting her resources and charitable impulse to work, then getting burned and giving up on charity altogether.

The questions I hard for her were: 1) What is your goal; 2) What can your role be in achieving that goal; and 3) Who might the experts be in this community to assist you in achieving that goal?  If the goal is to provide a portion of one’s units as affordable housing, I recommended that she connect with the City of London Housing Division.  They are always looking for partners like this.  They could potentially provide capital dollars to make the project a reality, and also provide a means of income-testing to find appropriate individuals.  I also recommended that she consider partnering with an organization like London CAReS who would provide intensive support for the renters and for her as the landlord.  In this way she would be both financially protected, and protected from having a bad experience and having the endeavor ruined by one individual.

The charitable impulse needs to be integrated into solutions that work, rather than simply motivated by a sense of doing good.  In the next post I’ll talk about soup, which seems incredibly benign, but is actually highly controversial.

The Charitable Impulse: Part 2

Begging HandsDue to my line of work, people will often approach me informally or in social settings to talk about experiences of poverty.  They will ask questions or share anecdotes that they find meaningful.  Over the recent holiday season an acquaintance shared the following story:

They were part of a gift-giving program where families in poverty could register to receive a holiday package.  They then had a chance to meet the family, delivering the gift directly to their residence. On dropping off their gift, the visit elicited no response from the recipient. The recipient gruffly told my acquaintance to leave it by the door.  There was no “thank you”, and no interest to engage in conversation.  They presented the experience to me as a frustration, and a clear justification to question all charitable work in general.

What drives the charitable impulse? Although motivations are complex and likely often blended, in some cases the drive is more internal than external.  There is a song by a comedian, too crass to name or link here, but which states, “I’ll give you fifty bucks to take away my guilt.”  The comedian proclaims that he doesn’t really care about poor children in different countries, but is always happy to give to take away his guilt of living so luxuriously in a world full of poverty.

But does motivation really matter?  If it’s just about donations, then who cares why people give?  The thing is that it’s not just about donations, it has more to do with the type of programs we design to actually create change in the community.  I would suggest that a program designed to elicit the most compassion and most donations may not necessarily look the same as one designed to create the greatest, lasting impact.  The charitable impulse to help may be driven by the desire to feel like I am helping, whereas a desire to facilitate change does not hinge so lightly on whether recipients of change have demonstrated an ‘appropriate’ degree of gratitude.

The Charitable Impulse: Part 1

In the summer of 2010, I saw a talk given by James Shelley that started to erode my basic assumptions of how to make the world a better place.  The challenge is that somewhere along the way I’ve picked up the desire to change the world, which is a fire you can’t put out, and which demands action.  This was simple and straight-forward through my twenties, as I assumed we could change the world by simply providing more resources to those who have less.  However, James changed that, and the basic assumptions I held of what was required of me began to crumble.  Here is the talk:

In this talk James talks about some of the basic assumptions of international charity, highlighting that charity can actually impede development.  Here’s my favourite line from the talk:

“Just because an idea is driven by really good intentions, does that make it a good idea?”

Continuing to explore what charity means in an international context, I have been exposed to the critical exploration of volunteer international health work based on studies by my colleague Oona St Amant.  Volunteer health work, where health professionals go into less developed nations to help bring medical care to those in need, is rife with the same problems that James identifies in his talk: If done as charity rather than development, more harm can be done to the community in the long run.

In this series of blogs I will critically explore the charitable impulse and what this has meant in terms of addressing poverty and homelessness in our community.  This will not be a conservative treatise on why not to give, but rather an exploration how we as decision-makers in our community need to focus on the long-game, treat root issues, and make lasting change.