I love gifts. I love that flutter of excitement right before I open a gift and discover what it is. Even more, I love that flutter of excitement right before someone opens a gift that I have thoughtfully picked out for them. When you give someone a gift, you’re exposing a little bit of yourself–what if your gift is rejected? What if they don’t like it?
Something I’ve learned since working with iThemba is that many non-profits have to walk a thin line between encouraging people to give (yay! That’s how we stay in business) but also discouraging people from giving. Because sometimes gifts aren’t actually helpful.
It’s one thing if your great-great-grandmother gives you an old sweater of hers that you think is ugly– you can stick it in the back of the closet and forget about it (after you write your thank you note). She meant well. You love her. But you know you just can’t wear that sweater in public without breaking lots of social norms.
But it’s quite another thing if someone shows up on the doorstep of your non-profit with a truck-load of old stuffed animals (or shoes, or tinned food) for children in Sweetwaters. You actually don’t have space to hide them in a back closet, and you can’t really forget about it after writing a thank you note.
Here’s why: As a development organization, iThemba is doing all they can to empower people to make use of the resources they already posses. So if someone in Sweetwaters is able to get food through a government grant programme, or growing a garden, we want them to use that, rather than us. If someone can get government health-care from the clinic for eye-glasses, or cough mixture, or immunizations– we want them to use that. It’s part of reminding people of their dignity, their God-given worth– they don’t have to sit around waiting for some white person to come and help, they can go out and make use of what is already there.
That’s not to say there is not a place for relief work– there is! There are situations in Sweetwaters where a family has no income, people are starving, and they need food and medical assistance. We want to show mercy in those cases, and sometimes we help, or we recommend another group we know that deals with relief. But at the same time– if we always step in to save the day, what if we are over-running local efforts to show mercy? What if we weren’t here? Would people really starve? Or would they share more, help each other more? I don’t know. It’s something to think about.
The other problem is (in the case of a truck-load of old stuffed animals) when we do give things, we want to honor the dignity of people in Sweetwaters by giving them things we would be proud to give to any of our own friends. Sometimes a used stuffed animal is okay– I own a few I’d be proud to give away– but there are definitely some in the mix that are pretty nasty. And for some reason, it seems that the nasty ones are usually the ones that end up in the “donate to Sweetwaters” truck. There is, in fact an entire competition in the NGO world called “SWEDOW awards” (stuff we don’t want) for well-intentioned but very horrible ideas people think of giving to the majority world.
So then what should people do with all their old stuff if not give it to Sweetwaters? Well. Maybe people shouldn’t have so much stuff in the first place. What if instead of buying new clothes every season (or new stuffed animals) you wore the same clothes until they were uwearable, and then you used them to make tons of crafts that you sold on pinterest and gave the money so more discipleship fieldworkers could mentor others in Sweetwaters? Or you could recycle your stuffed animals into a cushion. (Basically I just googled searched “how do I recycle _____” and there were a million ideas.)
But let’s go back to the flutter of excitement when you give someone a gift. That’s the part that’s so tricky. How do you honor and appreciate people who are giving, even if you know their gift isn’t that helpful (and may be harmful)? Because, like your great-great-grandmother (or, me, when I was five and made hand-made construction paper gifts for everyone that I was convinced looked “store-bought”),the people giving are doing something right:
They are thinking of others.
They are sharing.
They are trying to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
Sometimes the gift may have come at a huge sacrifice.
We do not want to squelch people’s hearts of compassion and mercy in our desire to discourage dependency in Sweetwaters. But we also don’t want people to give stuff we don’t need, and stuff that maybe the people in Sweetwaters don’t need either.
What thoughts do you have?