Teach a Man to Fish

Recently, I came across two critiques of a common saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

One of those critiques was in the video below (hat tip to James McGrath and Ross McKenzie)

The other was in a post by Vu Le at Nonprofit With Balls that I linked to earlier:

The teach-a-man-to-fish paternalism. This philosophy, so ingrained in our culture, is patronizing and often ineffective, sometimes harmful. It assumes one person is a fount of knowledge while the other is an ignorant, empty vessel to be filled with wisdom. It ignores systems and environmental variables. We can teach someone to fish, but if they have no transportation to get to the pond, or if the pond is polluted, or if better-equipped corporations have been destroying aquaculture through over-fishing, then they’re still screwed while we feel good about ourselves. We see the same dynamics in funding via this belief that nonprofits can be self-sustaining if we just teach them to earn their revenues instead of constantly asking for free fish in the form of grants and donations.

Perhaps I’ll share my own thoughts on this later; there’s a lot that I could say about teach-a-man-to-fish colonialism. For now, I just want to share this video and this quote along with a quick comment.

The idea of teaching a man to fish often ends up looking like this: we who have the fish teaching the people from whom we took the fish how to work the systems that we designed to distribute the fish and ensure that we get to keep most of the fish. That’s deeply problematic. That’s an idea that we need to interrogate.

People I Read: Vu Le

In the early-ish days of blogging, it was normal to have a blogroll: a list of links to other (often more popular) blogs that the author was interested in. The blogroll would sit calmly in the sidebar and let readers browse their way to other blogs and other authors, discovering fresh ideas and insights. Now, nobody maintains a blogroll. The best hope you have of finding someone else is to follow a link in the body of a post or in a comment or in a link dump. Around here, they also show up in link posts that I share fairly frequently.

But the fact is that I kind of miss the blogroll, and I think that it’s worthwhile to share some of the blogs I read and a note one why I read them. I’ll try to put up one example every couple of weeks.

This post’s person I read is Vu Le from Nonprofit with Balls.

Vu Le is the executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, which “cultivates leaders of color to strengthen the capacity of community-of-color-led nonprofits and foster collaboration between diverse communities to effect systemic change.” Nonprofit with Balls is an often humorous and always powerful look at the nonprofit sector from the inside. Le calls businesses, grant makers, and nonprofit organizations out on their failings with care and insight. He also writes brilliantly about the challenges that face nonprofit organizations in communities of color. If you’re a member of any of those groups – or not – you should be reading Nonprofit with Balls.

Being Stingy Doesn’t Work

Last week, I shared this post from Vu Le at Nonprofit With Balls. I excerpted this quote from it:

Budget Testing allows a larger nonprofit to be able to grow, while smaller, grassroots organizations continue to struggle. Getting 10K, while great, is not nearly as helpful as getting 100K. With 100K, you can hire a full-time exempt person, an essential element in organizational growth. With 10K, you can’t do much; if you’re lucky, you may be able to Frankenstein some other sources of funding together to get a part-time person, or pay for other elements to help your program to limp along. It’s like telling a kid, “Because you’re so little, I’m going to give you a few cheerios. When you grow big and strong, I’ll give you more and better food.” The flaw with this argument is that kids cannot grow just by being fed a few cheerios every day. (Despite my 2-year-old’s insistence otherwise)

Le is talking about foundations and nonprofit organizations. Budget testing is his name for the idea that foundations should provide funding based on the size of the budget of the organization to which they’re giving. For example, a nonprofit with a $1 million budget can apply for a $100,000 grant, while a nonprofit with a $100,000 budget can only apply for a $10,000 grant. His problem with this approach is that it means that the large organizations can get grants that are big enough for them to grow (e.g., $100,000 can hire a new staff member) while small organizations are left in the dust (e.g., $10,000 has to be combined with other resources in order to help a program).

And that’s all true. Small organizations need more help in order to grow into large organizations and make a greater impact on their communities.

But this quote also made me think of how we approach poverty as a problem.

Often, we place severe restrictions on who can receive help. A person must be struggling with immense poverty in order to receive help. Even if they qualify, the help they get isn’t enough to make a dent in their poverty. Someone who needs a little help can’t get the help that they need; someone who needs a lot of help can only get a little. It’s like we’re trying to do the least that we can to make it look like we care about the problem.

The reformers – those authors and speakers making the case against charity – try to justify this approach.

“If we give people more than this,” they say, “they’ll become dependent. They’ll become entitled. They’ll lose their work ethic. We don’t want our helping to hurt. If anything, we should give less.”

The problem is that being stingy doesn’t work. Solving a little bit of the problem doesn’t solve the problem. Forcing poor people to cobble together support from dozens of government programs and nonprofits doesn’t solve the problem. Inventing reasons to provide less doesn’t solve the problem. Asking poor people to work harder doesn’t solve the problem.

Many of us in the nonprofit sector are quick to see that stinginess doesn’t work when it’s foundations being stingy with us. So why are we so willing to implement it when it comes to the people we serve?

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