Bringing People Together to do Good

Poverty and Other Problems

Last week, I posted a link to this post by Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money. The first comment on that post (the one at LGM) seemed like an excellent opening to a post I’d been thinking about for a while. Here’s the comment:

My Jesuit moral theology professor used to say “The number one cause of poverty in the US is not having enough money”, and then deal with the predictable chorus of counterarguments. He used to continue “Those are all interesting questions, but they’re other questions…”

Drove people nuts…1Davis X. Machina, April 4, 2016 (12:08pm), comment on Erik Loomis, “Stop Trying To Fix Poor People,” lawyers, Guns & Money, April 4, 2016

One of the biggest challenges to addressing poverty effectively is that we constantly try to address poverty by addressing other problems.

Poverty, pretty much by definition, is the condition of not having enough money. If you give enough money to someone who doesn’t have enough money, then you have solved her problem of poverty. She is no longer poor. She might have other problems, but the point is that those are other problems.

Unemployment is another problem. Financial illiteracy is another problem. Lack of education is another problem. As the Jesuit moral theology professor might say, they are interesting problems, they are problems that need to be solved, but they are other problems.

But anti-poverty programs spend their time and effort trying to solve other problems. Some do that in tandem with efforts to address poverty. Some make it a prerequisite to addressing poverty. For example, an anti-poverty program might require proof of a job search or a financial literacy class as a condition of receiving financial help. And this approach stems from the idea that poverty is ultimately caused by the moral or intellectual deficiencies of low-income people.

As Erik Loomis put it in that post at Lawyers, Guns & Money, we keep trying to ‘fix poor people’ instead of solving the problem of poverty. And that doesn’t work.

Emerging research suggests that poverty isn’t simply – or even mostly – the result of bad decisions made or inappropriate behaviors engaged in by low-income individuals and families. Poverty is a major cause of those decisions and behaviors. And that means that we may not have to address those other problems in order to address poverty. Instead, it may be the case that addressing poverty first will help with addressing those other problems.

It’s also true that some of those other problems might not even exist. Despite the stereotype that low-income people are bad at managing their finances, low-income individuals might actually be better at managing their finances than high-income people.

There’s plenty of research still to be done, but I have suspicions about what it will reveal. Philanthropy in America needs to make a huge cultural transition. We need to stop focusing on ‘fixing the poor’ – on the other problems that we’re so often told we need to address – and focus on poverty. And it may well be that the best and most effective anti-poverty programs will be simple: giving enough money to people who don’t have enough money.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Lawyers, Guns & Money: Stop Trying to Fix Poor People

One of the two fundamental problems with American welfare policy is that at its core, it assumes that the poor are morally deficient and need to be fixed instead of just poor. So rather than just increase the money in these programs, politicians blather on about the morality of the poor, which is an excuse not to fully fund them.

Lawyers, Guns & Money: Stop Trying to Fix Poor People

Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence… and Me

I’ve been a development professional ever since I graduated from seminary almost (gasp) ten years ago. I’ve worked in higher education – both religious and secular – and in community organizations. I’ve volunteered with local congregations and middle judicatories. In my free time, I’ve read and written about charity and fundraising from a variety of perspectives. A couple of years ago, I felt that this career was more than a career… it was a ministry and a calling.

And on April 3, I was ordained into Christian ministry in the United Church of Christ.

I won’t be changing jobs. I won’t be looking for a local congregation. I won’t be preaching every week or performing sacraments regularly or providing pastoral care. In a sense, very little has changed.

Except that my work is no longer my work… it’s the work of the church.

Ordination in the United Church of Christ begins with a process of discernment. During this process, the candidate meets with a committee from his or her local church as well as a committee from the Association (the geographically related group of churches of which the congregation is a part). Some of these meetings involve questions; and one of the questions that came up a lot in my process was why ordination mattered if I wasn’t going to be doing those things I won’t be doing.

My answer was that this was a ministry and a calling… and that my work isn’t just my work, it’s the work of the church.

So there was a certain joy for me when I read a post by Chris Xenakis at Vital Signs & Statistics, the blog of the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD). Xenakis pointed to a recent-ish study by CARD entitled Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellent: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry. Today, I want to talk a little bit about that study and what it found.

The study asked members of the United Church of Christ to rate their congregations on a set of marks of congregational vitality and their pastors on a set of marks of ministerial excellence. CARD then took the ratings in each area – congregational vitality and ministerial excellence – and ranked them from highest rated to lowest rated. Finally, they looked at the relationship between the marks of congregational vitality and the marks of ministerial excellence.

Here’s what they found.

First, they found that there were four marks of ministerial excellence that were significantly related to a large number of marks of congregational vitality:

The ability to mutually equip and motivate a community of faith (related to 8 vitality factors)

The ability to lead and encourage ministries of evangelism, service, stewardship and social transformation (related to 6 vitality factors)

The ability to read the contexts of a community’s ministry and creatively lead that community through change or conflict (related to 5 vitality factors)

The ability to frame and test a vision in community (related to 5 vitality factors)1Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, William McKinney, Holly Miller-Shank, and Cameron Trimble, Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry, Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (2015), 30

Second, they found that these marks of ministerial excellence “were the lowest-rated items by congregants.”2Lizardy-Hajbi et alCongregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry, 30

Think about that: the abilities that clergy might have that correlate most closely with congregational vitality are the abilities that congregation members were least likely to say that their pastors displayed!

That’s not good. But it’s entirely understandable.

Here are the four marks of ministerial excellence that were rated highest:

Preaches the good news, lead worship and participate in the sacraments in a manner faithful to the broader Christian heritage and appropriate to the characteristics of a specific culture and setting

A thorough knowledge of, and personal engagement with, the Bible

Demonstrates moral maturity, including integrity in personal and public life and responsibility to self, family, church, and community

Communicates biblical knowledge in an understandable way3Lizardy-Hajbi et alCongregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry, 29

These, not the marks linked to congregational vitality, are the skills we learn in seminary and through the discernment process. I was never asked about equipping a community of faith, stewardship and social transformation, leading a community through change, or framing a vision for a community. Instead, I was questioned about my belief that a person doesn’t have to be ordained to preside over communion.

Let’s own this: the church is focused on preparing clergy who are functionaries, not facilitators. We’re focused on preparing clergy who do very specific things – preaching, leading worship, presiding over sacraments, communicating biblical knowledge, being a good moral example, etc. – instead of empowering a community to do all of those things together.

What lesson can we take from this? I don’t think it’s that members of the clergy don’t need a seminary education, deep knowledge of the Bible and the Christian tradition, moral maturity, and so on. Neither does Xenakis.

I think the lesson is that we need more people being ordained to more work. We can recognize that different pastors will have different specialties. Not everyone will be an excellent preacher, or youth minister, or pastoral caregiver, or administrator. But among all of us – among the entirety of God’s people – we have all of these skills and more. We could have pastors who specialize in worship, youth ministry, pastoral care, administration, community building, stewardship, and so on. And we could educate clergy who could do those things – who could develop those “marketing, fundraising, vision-framing, entrepreneurial, and leadership skills”4Chris Xenakis, The Politician-ization of Authorized Ministry: Some Lenten Thoughts about Dying Churches, Congregational Resurrections, and Pastoral Leadership, (Vital Signs and Statistics: Blog, March 20, 2016)  – with theological and biblical integrity.

We could, in other words, give clergy the opportunity to specialize in the same way that we do with youth ministry. And we could recognize that those clergy who do specialize are not ‘junior clergy’, but simply clergy whose calling is narrow for good reason.

So… what does this have to do with me? I know the challenges of being ordained to a ministry that doesn’t look like traditional congregational ministry. I know what it is to have to justify the church’s sanction of a call. I know what it’s like to be asked why I’m bothering to go through this process if I’m not going to be a traditional pastor.

And as much as this was a process I went through because I feel called to be ordained. I also went through it because I think that the church is being called to something new, and because there are people who will come after me and I wanted to do my part to open the doors a little wider for them.

Footnotes   [ + ]

ThinkProgress: Everything You Think You Know about Panhandlers Is Wrong

Researchers wanted to test out whether this widely held view of panhandlers as lazy alcoholics getting rich off others was correct. The Union Square Business Improvement District, a collection of 500 property owners in downtown San Francisco, hired GLS Research to survey panhandlers over a two-day period in March.

They found that, for the vast majority of beggars, Stossel’s view was simply not true.

ThinkProgress: Everything You Think You Know about Panhandlers Is Wrong

We Need to Have a Better Conversation about Overhead

For the last several years, the nonprofit sector has been having a very serious conversation about ‘overhead’. It’s a conversation that stems from a very real problem: many donors believe that nonprofit organizations should spend at least 77% of their budgets directly on the services they provide. That might not sound like a big deal, but nonprofits – like other organizations – also need to spend money on staff salaries, office supplies, fundraising and marketing efforts, and so on. And while there’s no agreement over what nonprofit organizations should be spending on overhead, there’s broad agreement that ‘as little as possible, even if it hurts the organization’ isn’t the right answer.

The problem is simple: the spending patterns that donors want to see (very little overhead) and the spending patterns that help organizations solve social problems (more than very little overhead) don’t match. And the very serious conversation is important.

But there are deep problems with the conversation we’ve been having. One of the big problems came to my attention in this recent post from Amy Eisenstein; it’s a post about the Wounded Warrior Project scandal.

For those of you who aren’t in the loop, Wounded Warrior Project is an organization that serves veterans wounded in the military actions that followed September 11, 2001. It’s an organization that does very well financially, receiving more than $300 million in donations in 2014. Earlier in 2016, CBS News reported that the Project was spending lavishly on conferences and events. Serious questions arose about whether the organization was wasting donor money, and in March the Project fired its CEO and COO while claiming that the core problem was that the organization ‘grew to fast.’

And normally, that would be it. Wounded Warrior Project would have to work on rebuilding trust with its constituents and the rest of us would move on.

Eisenstein, however, uses this as an opportunity to participate in the very serious conversation about overhead. In her post, Steve Nardizzi – the now-former CEO of Wounded Warrior Project – is an example of a great leader, “a real inspiration to fundraisers everywhere” who shows “provided unprecedented leadership and growth to Wounded Warriors.”

“Somewhere along the way,” she writes, “he crossed a line.”

Yes. The Wounded Warrior Project scandal isn’t about well-qualified and effective staff being paid well.1But, seriously, let’s have some humility when it comes to executive pay. Nardizzi had an annual base salary of $375,000. Many people in the nonprofit sector would defend that kind of salary because someone in a similar position in the for-profit sector would make that amount or more. That’s all well and good, but we also need to ask whether anyone needs to be making that kind of salary. It isn’t about fixing broken chairs. It isn’t about replacing outdated computers. It’s about lavish parties, first class accommodations, and suing smaller organizations. It’s about failing to deliver on the promises that the Project made to donors… and to wounded veterans.

In other words, it’s not about overhead. It’s about waste.

And a big problem with our very serious conversation about overhead is that we’re too fuzzy on that difference.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think it’s that difficult to convince supporters about the value of overhead. People understand that we need to spend money on salaries and buildings and office supplies and on community building. All we have to do is connect that spending to our missions.

People will understand… if we can show them how our spending improves their impact.

That’s going to take some work. The first step is to admit that there’s a difference between overhead and waste.

Overhead helps us work, grow, and improve lives. Salaries for staff who attain greater outcomes are overhead. Software that helps us understand out clients better is overhead. Communication vehicles that help us build communities and create change are overhead. And I believe that people will understand that.

Waste doesn’t help us work, grow, and improve lives. Custom made maracas with the logo for every staff member is waste. Entering a meeting by rappelling down the side of a building is waste. Annual conferences as five-star resorts are waste. Shiny new toys that don’t advance the mission are waste. People understand that.

In order to have a better conversation about overhead – in order to have one that really is very serious – we need to take a serious look at our spending and think about what is overhead and what is waste. It’ll be different for every part of the sector, but only once we’ve done this can we start really thinking about what an appropriate amount is and how to educate our donors about it.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Luke 24:6-11 (for Easter)

Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

Isaiah 53:7-9 (for Good Friday)

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

John 13:3-7 (for Maundy Thursday)

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Allison Carney: Bizsplaining: Mansplaining for Nonprofits

This is completely commonplace in the nonprofit sector. People from the “business world” talking to nonprofit staff like they have never successfully operated a blender, let alone worked (successfully) in their underpaid, understaffed, and completely vital position for years.

Allison Carney: Bizsplaining: Mansplaining for Nonprofits

There Are Shop Boys, and There Are Boys Who Happen to Work in a Shop for the Time Being

Recently, I watched the movie Stardust, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman. A few days later, I read a white paper from ideas42 titled Poverty Interrupted: Applying Behavioral Science to the Context of Chronic Scarcity. A similar idea – or, at least, an idea that looked similar when I saw at them one after the other – appeared in both.

The protagonist in Stardust is a boy named Tristan (Charlie Cox) who lives in a village called Wall. Wall is named for the wall that runs alongside it, a wall that has a gap that leads to a magical world. Tristan has a crush on Victoria (Sienna Miller), who sends him on a quest to bring her a fallen star. That quest leads Tristan through the gap in the wall and to the magical world of Stormhold where he meets and captures Yvaine (Claire Danes), a fallen star. On their journey back to Wall, they have adventures, fall in love, and are pursued by a witch who wants to take Yvaine’s heart in order to gain eternal life.

There is a moment when Yvaine and Tristan have been captured by pirates. Yvaine notes that, when she was a star in the sky, she used to watch people having adventures and envied them. Here’s what Tristan says: “Look, I admire you dreaming. A shop boy like me… I could never have imagined an adventure this big in order to wish for it. I just thought I’d find some lump of celestial rock, take it home and that would be it.”

And here’s how Yvaine replies:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about all my years watching Earth, is that people aren’t what they may seem. There are shop boys, and there are boys who just happen to work in a shop for the time being. And trust me Tristan, you’re no shop boy. You saved my life. Thank you.1Matthew Vaughn (writer, director) and Jane Goldman (writer), Stardust (Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, 2007), Netflix

“There are shop boys, and there are boys who just happen to work in a shop for the time being.” That’s a big statement.

There are boys who are shop boys. There are people who, deep down in the very fiber of their being, belong in a shop. It is who they are. It is who they always will be. Even if they work somewhere else – if they become pirates, for example, or kings – they will still be shop boys.

And there are boys who just happen to work in a shop for the time being. They are something else.

Similarly, in Poverty Interrupted, I came across this:

How do you describe the services your organization provides? What about the people you serve? The role your staff members play? These questions have implications far beyond organizational “branding:” the language you use and the labels you apply can have an outsized impact—positive or negative—on who takes up your service, how they use it, how your staff treats them, and the way their participation affects their self-esteem or self-image. If you conceive of someone as a “recipient” or “case,” for instance, it’s easier to adopt a mental model of her as a passive recipient of support than it would be if you referred to her as a “member,” “customer,” or “participant.” Because your mental model will shape your behavior toward her, a “recipient” may begin to believe that she is indeed needy or dependent.

In this paper, for instance, we’ve deliberately avoided using constructions like “needy families” and “poor people” to describe families living with low incomes. When used in this way, these words subtly reinforce the widespread perception that these families are qualitatively different from the rest of us, rather than regular people caught in a particular economic circumstance. When they are people first, and low-income second, it becomes easier to acknowledge individual situations, rather than to fall back on personal or societal stereotypes about “the poor.”2Allison Daminger, Jonathan Hayes, Anthony Barrows, and Josh Wright, “Poverty Interrupted: Applying Behavioral Science to the Context of Chronic Scarcityideas42 (2015), 44. The authors also discuss the importance of how we title staff and name programs. What we call things makes a difference.

To put that another way: there are poor people, and there are people who just happen to live in poverty for the time being.

Actually – and I think the authors of Poverty Interrupted would agree – I’m not so sure that there are poor people. There are only people who just happen to live in poverty. And that’s an important distinction. A lot of organizations act as though there are poor people, as though there’s something ontological about poverty. A lot of the people making the case against charity act as though there is something ingrained about being poor.

But there isn’t something ingrained. ‘Poor’ isn’t an ontological status. There are simply people who just happen to live in poverty. And if we work together as a community, they just happen to live in poverty for the time being.

And while I can’t promise that I’ll be good about avoiding terms like ‘the poor’ and ‘poor people’, I will try to be aware that even in my writing it is important to treat people as people first and low-income second (or third… or thirtieth).

There are, after all, shop boys, and there are boys who just happen to work in a shop for the time being.

Footnotes   [ + ]

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