As a child, every time National Geographic hit the mailbox, I’d flip through the pages, imagining the places I would one day travel. One theme remained constant–Africa.
I visited Uganda for the first time in 2008. Everything I had imagined—like the romanticized commercials of starving children I watched growing up—came to life. Seeing the 2002 Miami Hurricanes BCS National Champions t-shirts for sale in the market (they actually lost that game) caught me by surprise.
Two realizations hit me. First, our clothes do not go to starving children. They only generate piles of waste. Second, How are we still having this “poverty in Africa” problem?
Many factors contribute, such as corrupt governments and lack of education. But that day in Kampala, I saw firsthand the American contribution to the problem. Those shirts probably came from a well-meaning organization doing what they had always done. Because that’s what we do, right? We send our old clothes to people who need them more than we do. Therein lies the problem.
Outside of an acute crisis situation, a sympathy donation given in the name of compassion may not actually meet the real need. It only provides a temporary solution for a hemorrhaging wound and dismisses the root problem. It only treats the presenting symptom. An unintentional power structure forms between donor and beneficiary in that the benefactor feels good about helping someone “less than” and the recipient grows dependent on the donor. This enables the cycle of generational poverty, never giving the recipients of charity tools to rise above their current circumstance.
Call for Change
We as believers can do better than this. Am I suggesting we discontinue sponsoring children, cancel donations to charities that dig wells, and end aid to hurricane victims? Not at all. These help and provide necessary forms of charity for specific times and people groups when managed properly. They also fulfill a clear scriptural mandate to help the hurting and broken. However, I believe we can approach charitable ministry more intentionally once an acute crisis ends and ongoing care begins.
A disruption must exist in the power structure created by most charitable endeavors. Our goal should include lifting people up because of their inherent value as image-bearers instead of holding them down with the heavy hand of enablement. We see Christ repeatedly affirm the inherent, image-bearing value of the “underdog” in Scripture while he met their basic needs. He consistently left people in better condition than when he found them—empowering them to do more (Matt 9).
Innovatively and intentionally incorporating empowerment into our ministry models not only meets immediate needs, but it also allows the beneficiary to provide for themselves. This requires more planning, time, and work for donors, volunteers, and ministry leaders.
Over the course of time, however, it allows ministries to help people and steward resources more effectively. Let’s walk through the process of what it might look like to create a ministry philosophy for charitable endeavors that includes empowerment. This philosophy not only applies to ministry leaders who develop programs but also to donors desiring to responsibly steward their resources. Because so many charitable ministries serve those suffering from the effects of poverty, assume the beneficiaries in this instance have extremely limited financial resources.
If the problem manifests ongoing poverty, then donated goods will not provide a sustainable solution and will not change a person’s financial status long-term. Reliance upon contributions places the burden on the donor to supply a virtually unending supply of goods. This proves unrealistic, especially in the wake of increasing wealth inequality, hunger, poverty, and displaced peoples. This model fails to recognize that a lack of income, not a lack of goods, exists at the root of the problem. We must treat the source of the problem, and this requires a different approach than most traditional charitable ministry models.
Honor the Creative Design
Empowering the poor must provide the beneficiary with a means by which they can earn income. The ability to earn monetary means and provide for their own basic needs supports their upward climb out of poverty. God created people to learn skills with which they can generate income for themselves. Ministry leaders honor that creative design by helping others learn to help themselves.
This sounds relatively simple in developed countries such as the United States where opportunity abounds, but developing countries can realize this concept too. This kind of program requires focused time and resources regardless of location.
The key lies in working within the educational constraints of those served and ensuring they learn a skill or trade that can prove profitable in that respective location. For example, training men in the latest tech skills may not be as valuable in rural Africa where accessing electricity has its limits, but training them in innovative farming techniques can revolutionize their village—economically and in their food supply.
See how the disruption of the donor/beneficiary power structure occurred? No longer does the beneficiary solely rely upon the donor for charity. They rise as a peer laborer…or at the very least a respected employee. In time, the newly minted laborer will have enough skill to teach others, furthering the process. Just as poverty has a devastating ripple effect on its victims, empowerment has an even more powerful dignifying effect on its beneficiaries.
Once the charitable power structure gets disrupted, the restoration of dignity appears. Poverty, crisis, and trauma leave people in incredibly undignified positions. So often, ministries fail to restore dignity to the beneficiary by doing nothing to help lift people out of their crippling situation. We help them, yes. But we don’t help them out. Whether born into a helpless situation or thrown into it by circumstance, image-bearers need to know they have value. They need respect and the opportunity to earn the respect of others. This cannot happen if they constantly hold a position of “less-than” by a donor/beneficiary charity model.
Victories in Ministering
I see this firsthand in my own ministry, Vickery Trading. The refugee women I serve learn to sew and earn income using that skill. One of the first “victories” each of them have in our program includes the ability to go to the store and buy new clothes for their children. Not pick up clothes from a clothes closet at the nearest charity (a vital and helpful ministry when they first arrive) but purchase something that they choose and want with money that they earned with their hard work. Suddenly, they level the playing field when they walk into a store as an equal with other consumers. They’re no longer less-than. That’s dignity!
Participation creates a byproduct—relationships and community. Training that truly empowers others cannot happen without a significant time investment. That time, if used intentionally, provides space for relationships to grow—vital to truly meeting needs and serving others in a life-changing way. Only in the context of community can anyone discover a person’s needs, struggles, and desires. As trust forms, a two-way bond connects people and changes occur.
First, a friendship forms and equality grows. When a person recognizes another as a co-image-bearer rather than a need or social class, it restores dignity. Second, blessings develop as the friendship grows. This blessing includes the satisfaction felt after compassion-driven resource distribution, although nothing proves wrong with this kind of giving or the satisfaction felt afterward. This relational blessing—a blessing that remembers your birthday and checks when you’re sick—innovates. When life change transforms into bidirectional, it has the opportunity to positively affect everyone involved. Trust forms within the relationship and, as a result, people have the opportunity to address more complex issues such as spiritual, mental, and emotional needs. Ministry grows deeper rather than wide.
Making the Switch
These changes do not have ample opportunity to develop in a traditional charity model based on donated goods because the majority of human and financial resources focus on gathering and dispersing the goods. As I mentioned above, a time and place exist for aid such as this. The refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe provide a current example. The initial focus of survival and safety must take place. However, once addressed, what can we do to help people move forward? How quickly can we step into it? We can shift our attention and resources to empower much earlier than most ministries currently do. So why aren’t we doing this?
At the most basic level, change proves hard and this drastically shifts the approach for most ministries involving resource distribution. Honestly, the numbers aren’t as impactful in the beginning. My ministry currently empowers nine women. In 2017, we invested over $60,000 in associate salaries. A traditional resource-distribution ministry mindset probably cringes at this number. That money could pay for a multitude of resources passed out to hundreds of people!
But they act as resources on which (beyond initial aid during crisis) the beneficiary would continue to depend. At Vickery Trading, we’ve chosen instead to invest in educating women and paying them salaries that they earn through learned skills. This not only provides for their needs and supports their families, but it moves them out of dependency and into independence. They no longer rely on donations, and the trajectory of their families changes for generations. The exponential impact at that point becomes limitless and the return on investment on donor dollars spent dramatically improves over the lifetime of the program. When considering the long-term financial, relational, and spiritual impact of a program, an empowerment model has greater potential to steward resources more effectively.
This begs the question: How do we get started? What’s the first step? How do we implement a program that grows income-earning potential while restoring dignity and building relationships? Unless you start from scratch with an entirely new ministry, simply begin small. Provide opportunities for relationships to form between donors or volunteers and program beneficiaries. Give people a chance to get to know one another instead of only distributing goods.
This step takes a little more time and almost no financial resources but has tremendous impact. At Vickery Trading, this means that if a volunteer ties tags onto a headband, they do it sitting by an associate as she’s sewing and they get to know her. It’s that simple. After a couple of interactions, they have a history with one another, start to swap numbers, and invite one another to their homes. Relationship formed.
As for job skill training, that can admittedly require more involvement, start small. What needs does the local church or neighborhood have that the person in training can do? What skills do congregational members have that they can teach someone? Skills often taught and monetized include sewing, carpentry, auto repair, lawn care, and art.
I challenge ministry leaders and donors to think outside the box for the benefit of others. Identify places that can unintentionally create a donor/beneficiary power structure. Evaluate programs and find opportunities for empowerment. Reconsider giving to include empowerment as a criterion for gifts. Together, as the church, we can innovate and have a more lasting impact on the hurting as we glorify our Creator through the empowerment of his creation.
You can learn more about Stephanie and Vickery Trading here.