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:  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)


Charity can hurt (and man, I’m a mooch!)

 “Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.”

– Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity

I’ve experienced some of this in my own life…

1)   Don’t get me wrong – I have an amazing life: wonderful friends and family, a beautiful house, access to food, plenty of clothes..  BUT I also have no incentive to work: I have ALL of this without needing to lift a finger.

2)   I’m also embarrassed that I don’t work.  When asked what I do, I often avoid eye contact and mumble, “uh.. nothing”.  I’m grateful that people care and want to help, but it’s embarrassing that I can’t land any of the jobs I’m applying for.

3)   I (sometimes) feel guiltily indebted to Andy: basically the entire time we’ve been married, he’s worked a full-time job while I’ve done just random things here and there.  I know I need to step up and contribute… don’t want him to regret his decisions to support (or marry) me! 😉

So how does this relate to charity, you ask?


1)   Destroys initiative.

Chapter 2: Juan Ulloa, Opportunity International’s Nicaragua Director, laments that American church partners “’destroy the initiative of [his] people’” and turn them into beggars: why work when donors continually provide free clothing, books, and manual labor?

2)   Emasculates. 

Chapter 3: After moving into an urban neighborhood, Lupton saw firsthand what happens when well-meaning donors bring over Christmas presents: “a father is emasculated in his own house in front of his wife and children for not being able to provide presents for his family… [and] children get the message that the ‘good stuff’ comes from rich people out there and it is free.”

3)   Hurts the giver.

Chapter 4: Lupton says it well: “No one wants to support irresponsibility.  Or create dependency.  Or feel used.  Unless the victim of misfortune exerts honest effort to regain self-reliance, the relationship between helper and helpee will tend to deteriorate.  At some point accountability is required.”


I know my situation is a little different (and poverty is so much more complicated than these 3 simple points), but charity – even when done with the best of intentions and out of love – can destroy incentive, emasculate, and hurt the helper/helpee relationship.  Hopefully these examples will help spark ideas for more effective development strategies (e.g. rethinking aid incentive structures, training and empowering, ensuring recipient accountability).

Please leave any other ideas in the Comments section below!



A lot of these ideas are from Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton and are very similar to those in When Helping Hurts (a book I’ve posted on before: here and here).  More to come in future posts!

Without Ownership, Sustainability Is a Mirage by Mike Egboh

(I just read Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton, and this article shares a lot of the same points – similar to When Helping Hurts also.  Hopefully I’ll have a post up soon with more about Toxic Charity!)

Without ownership, sustainability is a mirage

By Mike Egboh on 16 January 2014

Sustainability. We hear and use that word frequently in international development, and most of the time the word is abused. But what does it really mean?

As a Nigerian leading the Partnership for Transforming Health Systems 2, a six-year project funded by the the U.K. Department for International Development to strengthen Nigeria’s health system, I can tell you based on decades of development program implementation in Sub-Saharan Africa — and Nigeria in particular — what it means to me. I have lived it.

Grant recipients in developing countries must first understand the rationale behind the grant, the benefits to them and their role in its implementation before they will embrace it. Unless the people of a nation truly buy into the project and are passionate about its goals, it will not last. Until they own it, they cannot sustain it. Ownership precedes sustainability.

Here are three lessons I’ve learned that can help to ensure a project is sustainable:

1. Make people part of the solution

At the inception of the PATHS 2 program in 2008, Nigeria had about 2 percent of the world’s population, but contributed 10 percent of the world’s maternal deaths. To reverse this trend, the project has been supporting the government of Nigeria at the national, state and local government level, working in five states of Kano, Kaduna, Jigawa, Enugu and Lagos to improve the health of women and children, especially in rural areas.

Jigawa, Kaduna and Kano are three states in Northwest Nigeria with high rates of maternal mortality — as high as 1,100 deaths per 100,000 live births. One of the major contributors to maternal deaths is poor access to facilities. Traveling to a health facility can involve long distances, bad roads and high costs, contributing to women dying in childbirth before ever reaching help.

To improve access to facilities, save women’s lives and make the community part of the solution, we’ve established an initiative in collaboration with the State Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Development called the Emergency Transport Scheme. We partnered with Nigeria’s powerful and well-organized transport union to turn taxi drivers into volunteer ambulance drivers who use their own cars to get pregnant women to the hospital or clinic during obstetric emergencies. Under this program, the union drivers get training on safe driving and understanding the danger signs in pregnancy. Drivers who volunteer for this program get special privileges in their day jobs, such as being promoted to the front of taxi ranks. Since the program began in 2012, the ETS has helped more than 2,274 women receive timely medical help.

In addition, PATHS 2 has facilitated an Emergency Maternal Fund in more than 50 communities in Kaduna. This draws upon donations from community members. Very poor members of the community can borrow from it and repay later without interest to help cover the costs of caring for maternal and child health emergencies.

Without programs like these that enable communities to see their roles clearly, get involved and become active participants, sustainability is a mere illusion.

2. Listen to the community

In Nigeria, we’ve found that getting people involved at the grassroots level — and really listening and responding to their concerns, their fears and their hopes — can have a positive impact on the lives of people who need help the most.

One of PATHS 2’s key efforts has been refurbishing health facilities in an effort to get expectant mothers to use them. Many pregnant women were giving birth at home using traditional birth attendants, which increased risk of death or injury both to themselves and their baby. So it was important to understand why women were using this riskier option, instead of making our own assumptions.

What we found is that many of these facilities had fallen into disrepair, people did not feel welcomed by health care providers, and staff morale was low. Thanks to the creation of Facility Health Committees, made up of local citizens, the health centers are more accountable — and have stronger links — to the communities they serve. Today, the health centers are clean and modern. Patients say they feel welcomed. Staff, who are better trained, are able to provide around-the-clock care in emergencies. At the same time, we recognized the need to accommodate local customs, so traditional birth attendants are being trained to identify when a pregnant woman is in danger and refer them to a facility.

These activities help ensure that people have a voice in the outcome, making it more likely they will carry on with the work long after we are gone.

3. Look to the youth

Like many countries, Nigeria faced a serious problem when it came to getting trained doctors to serve in rural areas. As of 2012, there were about 18 skilled professionals (doctors, nurses, midwives) per 10,000 people, compared to the World Health Organization’s recommended ratio of almost 23 skilled health workers for every 10,000 people.

Very often, rural health facilities cannot attract doctors because of their remote locations, and because the local government authorities cannot pay for their services.

So we turned to Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps, which runs a compulsory year-long program of national service for young people after graduation from a university or polytechnic school. We signed an agreement to send health professionals to our project sites. Some of those medical graduates who are doctors, nurses and pharmacists are now selectively posted to provide basic emergency obstetric care in rural health facilities that are supported by the PATHS 2 project. This means that the lives of mothers and children are being saved and more patients are seeking care at rural health facilities.

Involving the youth in solving a nation’s toughest challenges is a critical component of making a project sustainable.

We know that good health is essential if our families and our nation are to thrive, develop and prosper. But I also know from working on development projects throughout my career that the best intentions can fall short if we don’t involve the community and listen to their concerns and input. They must be part of the solution. Until you own it, you cannot sustain it.


Abdulkadir leads a group of health volunteers in Nigeria, where the U.K. Department for International Development uses an innovative community-based approach to help women safely deliver their babies. Involving people at the grassroots level helps ensure that a project becomes sustainable. 

Photo by: Lindsay Mgbor / DfID / CC BY-NC-SA


Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

Mike Egboh

Mike Egboh is national program manager for the Abt Associates-led Partnership for Transforming Health Systems 2 in Nigeria. A Harvard MBA graduate, Egboh has over 30 years of experience supporting the health system in his native Nigeria.