Don’t check your brains at the door: 6 tips for effective community development

Those of you who grew up in church in the 90s might remember this book: Don’t Check Your Brains at the Door.  The basic idea is that Christianity and reason aren’t mutually exclusive.  I think the same idea applies to philanthropy.  With so much poverty in the world, how can we afford not to use our brains when deciding what community and economic development strategies to pursue?  Especially in resource-limited nonprofits, wasting resources on strategies that don’t help – or worse, hurt! – those they’re trying to help is painfully inefficient.  (I hate inefficiency.)

Here are 6 ideas from Toxic Charity that will help development organizations and individuals to be smarter with our resources.  In other words, follow these tips if you want to contribute to strategies that work (as well as possible given the complexities of poverty)!*

1)   Determine the real need. 

Is the need we’re addressing a chronic need or a crisis?  If it’s a crisis, by all means give whatever relief is needed (e.g. food, medical care, shelter).  Once a crisis is averted, however, individuals and communities need help returning to their pre-crisis conditions (i.e. rehabilitation; e.g. job training, alcohol and drug treatment, counseling) versus more relief.  If it’s a chronic need we’re addressing, determine which is appropriate: rehabilitation or development (i.e. improving a community for the long-haul; e.g. education, medical care, government infrastructure, job creation, etc.).

For example, in many communities in the US, “[poor] nutrition is certainly a problem,… but not starvation… And when we respond to a chronic need [poor nutrition] as though it were a crisis [starvation], we can predict toxic results: dependency, deception, disempowerment.”  (TC, Chapter 4)

If there’s hunger but no fear of starvation, a food co-op where members pay into a food-buying collective might be a good option.  These co-ops affirm the dignity of the members and allow the group to buy ten times more food as a collective entity (here’s a great video that explains the model: http://www.urbanrecipe.org/our-model).  If jobs are needed to afford food, food distribution coupled with a job readiness or placement program might address that need more directly.  However, if someone is facing a one-time crisis (e.g. a sudden loss of job, injury, illness), free relief could still be the best option at that time.

2)   Be respectful.

Respect is essential in determining the real need.  Listen to those you’re trying to help – not as an external savior, but as a co-collaborator.  Acknowledge their struggles, affirm their worth, and discover what ideas they have and what they have to offer.  Then join in alongside them!

“Made in the image of God, we are created with intrinsic worth… But those who have been devalued by society are unusually sensitive to the signals they receive from the dominant culture.  Those in service work have the responsibility to listen to what those in need are saying and… also to what is not being said.”  (TC, Chapter 9)

Personal interaction is obviously a good way to develop compassion and understanding, but books can be great as well!  Poor Economics gives an insightful and well-researched perspective on the complex economic environments of the poor, both domestically and internationally – here’s a quick summary.  This article also gives similar insights on a more personal level.

3)   Consider the environment.

“Teaching a man to fish is an individual matter; but gaining control of the lake is a community issue.” (TC, Chapter 7)

What use is it to know how to fish if you only have access to a polluted lake?  Or no lake?  Or if someone else controls access to the lake?

Development can’t be done in isolation.  Just as you can’t create a business strategy in a vacuum, you can’t create a development strategy without taking external factors into consideration.

  • What could affect our work here?
  • Will corrupt officials impede aid delivery or free markets?
  • What crops are the weather/climate/soil suitable for?
  • What’s the market – who would be interested in buying?
  • Are there cultural barriers to entry?
  • Are community members resistant to “outsiders”?
  • Is there racial/cultural/religious strife?
  • What are their current sources of income?
  • Do community members work together or stay isolated?

For more on corruption and poverty, check out Economic Gangsters – interesting read!  For more on the interplay of human interaction/game theory and poverty, check out Games in Economic Development (by one of my professors!).

4)   Assess available resources.

“[Need] does not constitute a call… Focus your efforts in one or two areas that have a compelling interest to you, [and] that maximize your giftedness.  Defining (narrowing) your involvement allows you to concentrate your best energies strategically while establishing… boundaries…  Your marriage and family life will thank you.  And your community will ultimately appreciate the presence of a healthy family and an effective neighbor.” (TC, Chapter 9)

You might have a passion for food, but you wouldn’t start a restaurant if you can’t cook.  Instead, you could review restaurants, interview chefs, or start a food blog of your favorite dishes.  If you still want to start a restaurant, you’ll probably want to find a chef and then get advice from other restaurateurs!  Similarly, you might have a passion for education, but why start a tutoring program if you have no experience in education?  Instead, maybe consider pursuing another approach that will use your gifts while still helping the community.  If you’re still passionate about education, actively recruit experienced staff, volunteers, or board members and allow them to help guide strategy development!

For churches: “A church full of businesspeople might be uniquely equipped to create successful businesses in a developing country.  A church full of educators could turn around an underperforming school in their community, even the entire system.”  (TC, Chapter 5)  A church of engineers could offer tech support for nonprofits and low-income neighborhoods or teach a computer course at a local school.  A church of doctors could do medical missions or host a neighborhood clinic (Doctors for Change, Doctors without Borders, Samaritan’s Purse).  (I know some people want to do something different in their non-work time – more on this in my next post.)

Also see what resources the community has.

  • Who are the leaders?
  • What individual skills or material resources could help others in the neighborhood?
  • What makes residents proud of their community?

“When we focus on what is wrong, we miss what is right.  And our strategies for helping are driven by combating problems rather than strengthening potential.” (TC, Chapter 10)

5)   Make smart investments.

“Successful entrepreneurs… are concerned with return on investment.  They want to see measurable impact and lasting results.” (TC, Chapter 7)

Yes, return on investment can be harder to calculate in philanthropic work, but an organization still needs to determine which programs will have the greatest possibility of achieving intended goals.  Here are some questions to ask when deciding what programs to invest in:

  • Will these programs effect long-term change?
  • Will they foster dependency?
  • Are they good in the short-term but bad in the long-term?
  • Are students just memorizing testing strategies or really learning?
  • Are short-term trips costing or benefiting the organization? **

Just as business investors check in periodically to see how their investments are doing, nonprofit programs need to be evaluated regularly to see if they’re still achieving their intended results.  It’s not enough to invest in a good cause – we must invest wisely.  We can’t get lazy because it’s a good cause – if anything, we must be more rigorous in our evaluations.  Someone’s life could depend on it!

(For individuals deciding which organizations to partner with, taking short-term “insight” trips could be beneficial to see how the organizations work.  If you can’t take a trip, offer to serve on the board or volunteer for a domestic service project.  Just do your research so you can make a smart investment!)

6)   Stay disciplined.

As we’ve seen, effective community development requires research, evaluation, and continual flexibility and adjustment.  The best strategy is often not the easiest strategy!

“Enabling the poor to create their own solutions is obviously a much slower process than fixing problems for them – painfully slow for high-capacity friends with resources who would effect a quick ‘cure’.” (TC, Chapter 8)

Successful community development collaboration is complicated.  Not only do nonprofits need to plan, communicate, implement, and evaluate excellently to succeed (much like for-profit businesses do!), but staff members, community residents, donors, and volunteers all bring different cultures, values, expectations, and agendas to a (hopefully) shared vision.  Coordinating all of this requires discipline, dedication, teamwork, and wisdom.

Given all of this complexity, please please don’t check your brains at the door!  Share more ideas in the Comments section below!

~~~

* If an organization you’re interested in doesn’t seem to be following these tips, don’t write them off right away.  Have a discussion (or two or three…) with the leaders about their mission and strategies.  Maybe there’s something going on behind the scenes you’re not aware of.  Or maybe you can help point them in the right direction.  Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts would be great reads!

** The president of a struggling seminary in Cuba allowed volunteers from American churches to come each year to do manual labor that they weren’t equipped for.  Despite the necessary labor-intensive pre-trip coordination (and post-trip fixing of shoddy workmanship!), she continued to allow churches to “help” because of her fear that they would cut off their ministry support otherwise.  “Oh, what she could have done with the nearly $30,000 this group was spending on this trip!  Still, the church’s forthcoming, smaller donation for the true needs of the seminary was essential to their continuing work…

Anyone with a business background (or even street smarts) would agree that the amount spent on service trips is extravagant when compared to the monetary value of the actual work done.  But when people with business backgrounds enter service work, they repeatedly fail to bring with them their common sense and business acumen, defaulting to traditional charity models.  They would not put up with this kind of return on investment in their professional lives.” (TC, Chapter 2)

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