Money can be a tremendous resource and help to ministries and people in crisis when it is given in a way that lifts up local communities. Yet, it can cause harm when given in a way that marginalizes, even when it is given out of compassion and a spirit of generosity.
On behalf of Outcomes, Brad Smith, president of Bakke Graduate University recently interviewed both Dr. Brian Fikkert, founder and president of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College, and Rob Martin, partner of the First Fruit Institute. Smith spoke with them about when helping hurts, and when money helps – both the good and harm caused by donations and services provided to the poor, and the wisdom required to give well.
Brad: Brian, can you describe how your book title When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself is sometimes taken out of context, and how people miss the real tension?
Brian: Some people overreact and feel that because we might do harm, let’s not do anything at all. On the contrary! As North Americans, we are the richest people ever to walk the face of the earth. As such, the Bible says that we must give to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed (1 John 3:17-18). At the same time, we know from our experiences that our giving can create unhealthy dependencies.
We’ve seen examples of people who have received financial resources that have actually undermined their capacity as image bearers of the triune God. I Tim. 5:3-13 addresses this very issue. The same God who tells us to help the poor also says to withhold assistance from any widows who are under the age of 60 lest they become idle. And so the very tensions we have experienced are actually found in Scripture. The question is how can we resolve this tension of giving generously without creating unhealthy dependencies.
Rob, how do you articulate this tension?
Rob: This is a positive tension. The drive, springing from our compassion, is to do something good. But, we can create an over-dog/underdog challenge when we create dependence on Western funding. The majority world church has matured. We are now seeing an emergence of a mission force in what was the former mission field. We want to respond, but now our role should be to come alongside, to equip and to encourage, and to help build local accountability systems. We need to view the majority world church as an equal. We should have a communion of giving and receiving with our brothers and sisters across the globe. We cannot achieve this if we dominate others by our funding. We should create scaffolding in an appropriate way to empower local mission when we fund.
Brian, how does what Rob shared about donations also apply to distribution of services to the poor?
Brian: The message I want to communicate is that we should give more not less. But what we give to really matters. Poverty is deeply rooted in broken relationships that each person has with God, self, others and the rest of creation.
“I’m arguing for more giving to more effective approaches.” Brian Fikkert
Hence, it takes a long-term process to alleviate poverty because broken relationships are not solved quickly or by mere handouts of material resources. What we really need are financial supporters to write large checks to pay for Christian ministries that will walk with poor people for long periods of time in highly relational and empowering ways. This is actually more expensive—and also far more effective—than simply giving material resources to poor people. So, I’m not arguing for less giving. I’m arguing for more giving to more effective approaches.
For example, we need to understand the difference between situations in which people are unable to help themselves and need immediate relief, i.e. handouts, and situations in which people are not completely helpless and can contribute to their own improvement. Immediately after a tsunami, people can’t help themselves and need handouts. But once the crisis is over, people are able to participate in their own recovery. And it’s profoundly important that they do so because the goal is restoration to image bearing, which involves people using their own gifts and resources to achieve God’s mission. Hence, it is very important that as we bring in outside resources, we only do so in ways that complement rather than overrun the use of local resources, not because we’re stingy, but because we want to achieve the goal of restoration to image bearing.
Can you each share a few principles of practical wisdom for us to consider when giving money or services to the poor?
Brian: We need to make a distinction between poor people and the organizations that serve the poor. Again, we need big checks for organizations that are engaging in the long and difficult work of walking with poor people in ways that truly empower them to discover and steward their own gifts. Unfortunately, we tend to pour outside resources into poor communities too quickly and in too large quantities, because as Western materialists we think that money solves everything. This is a mistake. In fact, one of the things we should do to evaluate the effectiveness of a poverty alleviation ministry is to ask whether or not we see the low-income communities increasingly contributing their own resources to their own improvement over time. Indeed, Matthew Frost, the former CEO of Tearfund UK, once told me that when he visits a community where Tearfund has been working, he considers it successful if nobody asks him for money and nobody thanks him for anything.
Rob: Poverty is not an excuse for a lack of generosity. We always need to look at the inherit generosity in a community and consider how generosity works within the culture. Most communities look after each other’s children and have forms of generosity, yet often, we do not see an established philanthropy. We should encourage local partners to develop vision that will begin to encourage an increase in local generosity. When locals are generous they want to know that their gifts are making a difference and this encourages local accountability. I look for local boards that are giving out of their own money rather than expecting their American partners to do all the giving. I also want to see that an organization is on a journey to local sustainability. Right now, challenge grants that encourage raising local funds and support for online fundraising training are good ways for Americans to fund missions.
Do you each have a final remark?
Brian: We really need to change the entire system of how donors, nonprofits and poor people relate to one another. Poor people typically have deep-seated feelings of inferiority and incapacity, which cripple them and contribute to their poverty. At the same time, nonprofits often chase money, offering to deliver the services they think donors will fund. As a result, poor people end up getting whatever the donors think they need. The entire system exacerbates the sense of incapacity that is crippling poor people. We need to create systems where the donors and nonprofits respond to poor people rather than the other way around.
Rob: We need to be patient and to think about the impact of our giving. We should have a highly relational approach that is transformational between the giver and receiver, each recognizing his own brokenness. We should have a communion of giving and receiving where we meet each other at the foot of the cross.
Rob Martin is author of the forthcoming book, The Communion of Giving and Receiving: A Guide for Fundraising and Investing Mission Money Well. He is former executive director of First Fruit and works now as partner of the First Fruit Institute, a capacity development ministry focused on helping those flourish in their calling who evangelize, develop leaders, and serve in the love of Jesus to the bottom billions of the majority world.
Dr. Brian Fikkert is founder and president of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College, where he also serves as a professor of economics and community development. He is co-author of several books, including: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself (Moody Publishers, 2012) and From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty through Church-Centered Microfinance (Zondervan, 2015).