Janet Levine: Consistency Beats Brilliance Every Single Time

The more you have clarity about the work you need to be doing, the more work you can actually get done. For with clarity comes what I always think of as the magic bullet of fundraising (and everything else)–consistency. Doing things with regularity and constancy. Brilliance may be something we all desire, but the truth is, a boring plan done with consistency will trump random moments of brilliance every single time.

(Re)Defining Poverty

When most of us think about poverty, we probably have a pretty clear idea about what we mean. Poverty means not having enough money.

Some of us might think about it a bit more. We might make a distinction between absolute poverty and relative poverty. We might make a distinctions between income poverty, asset poverty, and liquid asset poverty. Some of us might think about poverty in relation to other issues. We might consider poverty and economic rights, poverty and social rights, or poverty and cultural rights. We might understand poverty as a symptom of bigger social and political issues.

But when you get down to it, even those of us who think about poverty a lot still think of poverty as not having enough money.

Which is why it’s noticeable when those making a case against charity define poverty in different way. And it’s especially noticeable when they define poverty in a way that means that “the ability to leave poverty is more dependent upon other resources than it is upon financial resources.”1Ruby Payne, Phillip DeVol, Terie Dreussi-Smith, Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, Kindle Edition (Highlands: aha! Process, Inc., 2009), Kindle Locations 209-210 It’s especially noticeable when they define poverty in a way that makes solving the ‘not having enough money’ problem less important than solving some other set of problems.

For example, when Ruby Payne defines poverty, she describes it as “the ‘extent to which an individual does without resources.'”2Payne et alBridges Out of Poverty, Kindle Location 194 While these resources include financial resources, they also include emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical resources, as well as other things like support systems, role models, knowledge of ‘hidden rules’, and coping strategies. Unsurprisingly, given her perspective and the quote in the previous paragraph, most of her work is focused on addressing these other deficits. In fact, because one of the ‘hidden rules’ of poverty is that “any extra money is… shared or quickly spent,”3Payne et alBridges Out of Poverty, Kindle Locations 387-388 giving someone money or things without addressing the other deficits would almost certainly be doomed to failure.

Or, to give another example, when Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert describe poverty, they look at the ‘brokenness’ of four key relationships. These are the relationships between us and God, us and the rest of creation, us and others, and us and ourselves. The brokenness of these foundational relationships leads to different kinds of poverty that affect our economic, social, religious, and political systems. In addition to material poverty – the kind of poverty we usually think of when we think about poverty – there is poverty of spiritual intimacy, poverty of stewardship, poverty of community, and poverty of being. All of these latter forms of poverty affect everyone: we are all poor.4Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself (Chicago: Moody, 2012), 58-61 Of course, this means that we can’t address material poverty alone. In fact, “until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.”5Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 61

How we define a problem affects the kinds of solutions we look for. Corbett and Fikkert actually point this out: If we define poverty as a lack of knowledge, we’ll try to educate the poor; if we define it as oppression by the powerful, we’ll work for social justice; if we define it as the result of the personal sins of the poor, we’ll attempt to get them to repent; and so on.6Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 52 And if those who are making a case against poverty are right – and poverty is something different than not having enough money – then they’re also right that traditional charity can’t be the right approach to solving the problem. At least, it can’t be the sole approach.

But that leads to a question. Is the idea that we need to reform if not abandon charity the result of coming up with a better definition of poverty? Or is the more expansive definition of charity – a definition that all but demands the reformation of charity – the result of a desire to reform if not abandon charity? In other words, what comes first: the way we define the problem or the solution we favor?

I suspect it’s a mix, and individual to each author who chooses to make a case against traditional charity. But it’s also something we need to look out for. When we – as individuals, as congregations, as organizations, and so on – start rethinking our definitions of poverty, are we doing that because we’ve actually come to a better understanding of poverty or because we’re looking for a justification for moving away from charity?

As for me, I think that poverty is related to a whole host of other social problems in very complex ways. Poverty is related to racism, sexism, capitalism, colonialism, and so on. It’s not separable from those things. But I also think that when we talk about poverty we aren’t trying to talk about the entire network of social problems. We’re trying to talk about a single aspect: not having enough money.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Vu Le: Trickle-Down Community Engagement, Part 2

As I’ve been working in the field, and working specifically with communities of color, I’ve been seeing more and more signs of diverse communities being treated like children who don’t know what’s good for them. I don’t think it is conscious or intentional. But it is still frustrating, like watching the first half of the Seahawks/Panthers game.

The Case Against Charity

A few years ago, I was given a copy of Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)I was surprised at what I read. The core argument of the book is that charity – except in cases of real crisis – is harmful to both donors and recipients. It fosters dependency, erodes work ethic, and creates a sense of entitlement. Instead of giving charity, he argues, we should help people in poverty by creating jobs programs, using asset based community development, providing loans, and helping people participate in systems of reciprocal exchange. Traditional charity, according to Lupton, cannot hope to lift people out of poverty. We need a different strategy.

What I didn’t know when I first read Toxic Charity was that it was my introduction to an entire genre of literature and an informal movement aimed at reforming traditional charity. Lupton’s book is one of the more famous in the genre, but there are plenty of others: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself, Steve Rothschild’s The Non Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit Success, Ruby Payne’s Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, and more. There are TED talks, articles, seminars, workshops, and lots of other channels for this movement. All of them telling churches and other nonprofits that we need to rethink how we serve the poor.

The case against charity tends to come in three forms.

The case against giving. This case is based on the idea that traditional charitable giving – usually described as ‘doing for others what they can or should be able to do for themselves’ – hurts the people who receive it and keeps them trapped in poverty. Traditional forms of charity like food pantries, clothes closets, Christmas toy drives, and so on encourage dependency and entitlements while destroying the work ethic of the poor. In order to avoid hurting the poor in these ways, we need to avoid using charity except in real cases of emergency. Instead of using traditional charity, we should help the poor enter into systems of reciprocal exchange where they can earn their way out of poverty: microcredit, co-ops, small businesses, and so on. The path out of poverty runs through the marketplace.

The case against the nonprofit sector. This case states that the nonprofit sector is unable to attain the scale and influence necessary to solve massive social problems like poverty. Nonprofit organizations a tiny compared to the challenges that they want to conquer. And they are kept that way because they are unable or unwilling to adopt the best practices of successful for-profit businesses. In order for the nonprofit sector to increase its scale and influence, it needs to invest in talent, improve its marketing, and attract investors. The best way to do this is to attract large investors with the promise of financial returns. The path out of inadequacy runs through the marketplace.

The case against poverty culture. The proponents of this case argue that people living in poverty have a distinct culture: they use casual language, rely on verbal and physical violence to settle conflicts, live in the present, see money as something to be spent, and so on. This culture works when a person is living in poverty, but doesn’t include good strategies for escaping poverty or fitting into the middle class. When a poor person receives a financial windfall, for example, she is more likely to spend it on immediate gratification than invest it in a future return. In order to make the transition out of poverty, people in poverty need to adjust more than their financial situation or their behaviors. They need to adjust to a new culture: the culture of the middle class. The path out of poverty runs through American middle class values.

Over the last decade, this movement’s influence has grown by leaps and bounds. I’ve heard its ideas discussed in nonprofit board meetings. I’ve had its books and other media recommended to me by employers. I’ve been asked to comment on it during talks at churches. I’ve seen the principles of Lupton’s ‘Oath for Compassionate Service’ listed as criteria on grant applications. I’ve seen individuals change how they give, and churches and nonprofits change how they operate, based on the advice coming from this reform movement. But this movement is changing more than the strategies and tactics that we use to address poverty; it’s doing more than recommending microcredit over cash transfers. It’s asking us to change the way we think about the effectiveness of charitable giving, the way we imagine the church and nonprofit sector, and the way that we think about the poor.

I don’t buy it. I believe that charitable giving really can change lives, that the nonprofit sector can be a powerful alternative to a for-profit sector that too often exacerbates poverty, and that poor people can generally be trusted to make good decisions when given the opportunity to do so. And I created this blog, in part, to make that case. The case for charity.

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.

Defining Charity

The idea of charity is baked into our culture. We give charitable gifts. We support charitable organizations. We attend charitable events. We celebrate charity in others. We allow people to take tax deductions for their charitable donations. Charity is part of who we are. It’s part of who we imagine ourselves to be.

But what is charity? What makes a few dollars stuffed in a birthday card to a grandchild different from a few dollars given to a panhandler when we pass him on the street? What makes a check sent to a food pantry in a poor neighborhood different than a check given to an elite university in exchange for a building being named after the donor? We can all intuit a difference between these gifts. Few of us could articulate and defend that difference.

Not every gift is charitable. Not every kind of giving is charitable. Charity is a distinct kind of giving. Charity has a specific history. Charity is deeply rooted in Judaism and spread through the world as the heart of Christianity. When we understand that history – and here I’m indebted to Gary A. Anderson’s Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition – we can approach a definition of charity.

Charity is benevolent giving that has three characteristics.

First, it originates in the divine. Sometimes this might be understood as a divine mandate: God commands us to be charitable and we must obey that command. Sometimes this might be understood as a connection to the divine: being generous helps us ride along the natural currents of the cosmos. Sometimes this might be understood as both of these at once or based in some other metaphor or analogy. The point is that charity is connected to a divine something larger than and distinct from us.

Second, it is specifically directed towards the poor and marginalized. This probably seems obvious, but it makes charity distinct from other forms of giving. A birthday gift to a friend or relative may be nice, but it probably isn’t charity. A gift that helps create a new business school at an elite university may do a lot of good, but it isn’t charity. Charity has a single focus: providing for the needs of those who don’t have access to the resources necessary to participate fully in society.

Third, it doesn’t discriminate based on the worthiness of the recipient. This has become a controversial characteristic of charity. There are those who advocate creating systems of ‘reciprocal exchange’ for the poor, or making sure the recipient of charity has demonstrated a willingness to escape poverty, or creating some other set of requirements that show the the recipient is worthy of charity. These kinds of requirements diminish charity, which considers the poor and marginalized deserving simply because they are poor and marginalized.

So here is what I mean when I use the word ‘charity’: benevolent giving that originates in the divine, is specifically directed towards the poor and marginalized, and that does not discriminate based on the perceived worthiness of the recipient. Not everyone would agree with this definition. But I believe it captures the historical and theological origins of charity as a Jewish and Christian practice.

Charity Matters

There are Christian congregations across the country who pride themselves on their charity work. They run food pantries and clothes closets and soup kitchens. They take up collections for Church World Service or Heifer International or Operation Smile. They hose English as a Second Language classes and blood drive. in the appropriate seasons they collect food for community Thanksgiving meals or Christmas presents for low-income children or coats for the homeless. They send volunteers to other organizations. They are the hands and feet and words of Jesus. They are doing the work of the body of Christ.

They are doing charity. And that matters.

Charity matters because charity – God’s charity towards us and our charity towards one another – has been the heart of Christianity for almost 2,000 years. Traditionally, Christians have encountered the literal presence of Christ in two deeply intertwined ways: communion and almsgiving. In communion, we come before the altar to receive Christ’s presence. In almsgiving, we go to the poor and make gifts to Christ. Communion and charity form a complete cycle of giving and receiving between Christ and the world.

Charity matters because it presents an alternative to an uncaring world. Poverty and marginalization usually go hand in hand: the poor are pushed to the ragged edges of society, and those on the edges of society are denied access to the things they need to improve their lives. It doesn’t have to be this way. Charity presents a vision of the cosmos that competes with the vision of our dominant political and social structures. It suggests that we do not live in a world of limited resources that must be carefully distributed, but in a world where generosity is not only possible but natural.

Charity matters because it works. Personal experience and professional research both show that giving to the poor really does help lift people out of poverty. People who are poor tend to know what they need to improve their lives. When they are given the means to meet those needs, they tend to do so. Charity really does change the lives of recipients and donors. And the fact that it works is evidence in favor of the vision that charity proposes. And that is evidence in favor of the idea that I believe is at the heart of Christianity: that the cosmos is generous and that this generous cosmos reflects a generous God.

Charity is, perhaps, the greatest gift that Christianity – and here Christianity owes a lot to its Jewish roots – gave to the world. Charity matters.