Seeing Clearly

Last year, Jacky Buhoro of the Democratic Republic of Congo told me, “As Christians, we are called to change by doing.” Where does this responsibility come from? I’m far from being a Bible scholar and so I love it when someone can make the stories come to life and inspire me to action. Recently, this inspiration came through Will Brown, a graduating student at Yale Divinity School, in a sermon about Jeremiah answering God’s call to serve others. In 6th grade, Will got his first pair of glasses. A small change and yet, to his great amazement, little Will could now see everything clearly: the leaves on the trees, and the chalkboard in the classroom!

But with the new ability to see clearly he also saw the rough spots, the stain on the floor. These are the places where the reality of what we see doesn’t match God’s reality for the world. As we begin to see how people in our neighborhood and overseas struggle to pay for education and to get a job to support themselves, we become responsible for reacting to make this different.

We know that God’s reality is not want and despair but rather prosperity and hope. Our world’s dark corners need our attention to bring them into God’s perfect peace and potential for the world. Spirit in Action was created to address those needs with compassion, love and action.

A Model of Compassion

One great model of compassion is Jacky Buhoro, who says, “It is my duty to help unable persons.” In her village near the DR Congo-Rwanda border, Jacky works with war widows to grow food in a community garden that was started with a SIA grant in 2007. “The community garden project for women helps us a lot to feed orphans. It serves as a demonstration site to help children understand the importance of gardens and the role of working together.”

Jacky sees the world with God’s clear vision – she sees both the vulnerable women and children without land and without access to education AND the opportunity to encourage each of them through action and compassion in the garden. With people like Jacky who are so hopeful for the “vulnerable people created in the image of God,” the least I can do is support her as she actively seeks God’s reality of peace here and now. I can see that much clearly!

Related Posts:

Interview with Jacky Buhoro: A Mother to Orphans in DRC

From Del’s Journal: There Must be a Sharp Focus on Compassion

People Helping People – about the book The Poor Philanthropist

Shifting Perspectives

Small Business Fund training in Uganda.

Small Business Fund training workshop in Uganda.

My work with Spirit in Action is not only about “making the world a better place” and running the daily operations of an organization, but also about struggling to understand how each of my interactions can bring more peace and equality into the world. This means constantly striving to put myself in another person’s shoes.

That might sound like either a lofty goal, or a throwaway promise. Yet, if I can keep this goal in the forefront of my mind, I am reminded to honor the dignity of each person I work with; to listen to peoples’ needs and desires; to trust them to send in grant proposals that they believe will be successful; to honor our partners’ service and respect their time.

Shifting My Perspective

How do I begin to imagine putting myself into our partners’ shoes? On her blog Good Intentions are Not Enough, Saundra Schimmelpfennig asks us, “to imagine being on the receiving end of aid, to try to think of aid from the recipient side rather than the donor side.” In this post, she introduces the Listening Project, which “interviews aid recipients, local government officials, religious leaders, and community organizations to find out their perspectives on international aid.” Through their fascinating testimonies, I can begin to shift my perspective.

Beyond just listening, Saundra also explores some of the social costs that are associated with receiving aid. For example: “Social stigma – Imagine how you would feel having your neighbors or coworkers see you using food stamps or waiting in line at the local food pantry.” Click here to read the rest of this thought-provoking list.

Being Accountable to our Beneficiaries

How can we put this new perspective into practice? On her blog How Matters, Jennifer Lenter asked her colleagues about how they would change “the system” to make foreign assistance better.

Perusing through the answers, a response from C.D. in Swaziland particularly struck me: “Let the intended beneficiaries of development take the driving seat from identifying their only priority developmental issues, to planning, designing, implementing and monitoring. Let the beneficiaries define the priorities and let the donors be accountable to beneficiaries for quality, appropriateness or adequacy of the assistance delivered.”

Part of SIA’s mission is to empower individuals and grassroots organizations to choose their own grant project and decide what kind of small micro-enterprise they believe will be successful.

More than this, C.D. calls on donors to be accountable to the beneficiaries. Del Anderson, our founder, often wrote about everyone being channels of God’s love in the world. “God has made us as God’s instruments and co-creators, so as we take our responsibility to be God’s channels, we are empowered and the fruit of the Spirit is brought forth through us.”

We, at SIA, have a great responsibility to strive to better understand the people we are serving and consider the many ways they are serving us. Let’s shift our perspective. Each person has something to give. What is the gift you receive from SIA partners?

Related Posts:

The benefits of risk-taking

A friend of SIA with 50 years experience employed on the executive and administrative sides of church, parachurch and humanitarian foundations, muses on the value of risk, accountability, and the occasional failure in investing in people and projects world-wide:

When I asked Tanya about on-the-ground accountability for SIA grant funds in the places where people have the least resources, I was thinking of several experiences in our foundation work which looked like failures at the time.

Providing education for girls

Here is one example.  We work with a foundation that provides school fees and scholarships in developing nations primarily for the children of people we met while working for another foundation.  We’d become aware that the local leaders we worked with, in every instance, chose to stay in their countries and serve their people rather than migrating to Western Europe or the USA.  In some cases, by staying and working as teachers, nurses, social workers, pastors, and community organizers, they did not generate enough income to keep their own children in school (in many developing nations, parents have to pay for school tuition, uniforms, and other fees beginning in elementary school).

Due to cultural exigencies, if a parent has, say, two boys and two girls, and there is enough money to educate only two children, it is the boys who go to school.  (This isn’t what it looks like to American eyes — in their cultures, where there is no such thing as retirement income or Social Security and Medicare, it is the sons who must care for their parents in old age.  Sons have priority on education because of their responsibility to provide for their own wives and children, and then also their parents.  Girls become part of their husband’s family, and help care for her husband’s parents.)

Girls with education bring more resources and opportunities to their families, and more choices open for them as well. Our foundation’s educational grants specify that they are to be used for the education of the female children of the family, and no other purpose.

Building relationships built on trust

Most of the families we’ve assisted with school fees are people we’ve known face to face, worked with in their own communities, and greatly respected for their vision for improving opportunities for people in their country.  In the vast majority of instances, the school fees, college and university scholarships, and graduate school fees have been used for the purposes for which we sent them.  However, occasionally funds are “misused.”

One family had six children, four girls and two boys.  The boys had been in school from age seven.  The girls had gone sporadically, whenever there was enough money. This was just the sort of family we wanted to work with, to be sure the girls had an education, and therefore, many more choices and opportunities when they became adults. We sent the funds for one school term for all four girls.

When we checked in several months later, inquiring how the girls were doing in school, we received no answer.  Several more letters and emails were not answered.  Finally we checked with a mutual friend in their village.  It happened that just as the school funds arrived, the wife/mother of the family fell critically ill and needed surgery.  The husband/father chose to use the education funds we’d sent to pay for his wife’s surgery, very likely saving her life.  He was so embarrassed and ashamed that he had “failed us” that he wouldn’t respond to our contacts.

Of course, when we learned what had happened, we immediately wrote and told him that we understood completely, and that in this case, he had made the right choice to use the funds to save his wife.  THEN we asked the question, “How can we work together to keep your girls in school?”

Valuable lessons for all

Over time, the man felt so empowered by our continuing trust in him, he and his family redoubled their efforts to earn income from their garden. With a little help from our foundation, he paid the balance he owed for the girls’ school fees, and from there on managed to pay more than half of the fees needed to keep his daughters in school.

What at first looked like a failure and loss to the foundation, and felt like a personal failure to the man whose daughters we helped, turned out to be a double blessing — the man had the funds at hand when his wife needed surgery for survival, AND the family was motivated and empowered to become even more self-sufficient.  The building of self-confidence, self-esteem, and trust in God’s providence was the great blessing that came out of what looked like a bad mistake.

In our foundation experiences, such misuse of designated funds has happened several times (though remarkably rarely,) with various projects and individuals.  Not always, but most often by staying in very close supportive contact with the individuals involved, the situation can become a very valuable learning experience — for everyone!

So, our view, based on long experience, is that it is okay to take a risk now and then, and perfectly okay to “fail” now and then — more often than not, a much greater good emerges from what is learned, both by the individuals involved, and by the foundation staff and board.

Recognizing the Value of Overhead

“Misconception No. 4: Low administrative costs are a good indicator of the quality of the organization.”

So begins a post by Saundra Schimmelpfennig about misconceptions created by charity websites. Maybe you have noticed this phenomenon. Many organizations tout only 1% administrative and fundraising costs on their donation pages. One of the reasons for this is that charity rating websites like GuideStar and Charity Navigator highly value bare minimum “administrative expenses”. (SIA is not eligible to be reviewed by Charity Navigator because they only review organizations that raise at least $500,000 in public support per year.)

Clearly low administrative costs are attractive to donors. But, a 2009 report from several charity watchdog organizations has these words of warning: “In short, picking a charity based on the lowest overhead ratio is like buying the cheapest car that money can buy. You might spend less in the short run but it’s inevitably going to let you down.”

For one thing, looking only at administrative costs means that donors are not looking at the impact of the organization’s programs.

Think of it this way: If a soup kitchen has low administrative costs but lets its food sit and rot, have they used their money effectively? Paying someone to oversee the volunteer chefs may be a much better use of donor funds than just buying food!

Schimmelpfennig’s blog post calls on nonprofits to do something new: “Instead of focusing on low administrative costs, share information on the importance of those costs.”

SIA Office in Santa Cruz, CALet’s consider the administrative costs at Spirit in Action. Our annual budget is about $45,000 and my salary (as the sole employee, hired part-time) was  just under $22,000 last year. We spent about $1,250 on printing and photocopying costs.

But what does that get you? Quite a lot of “bang for your buck” as they say in Minnesota!

  • About 65% of my day is spent on purely programmatic activities. Those administrative hours go to writing letters to international partners, reviewing grant applications, following up on previous grants, and working with the grassroots organizations to refine their local programs. Without administrative costs, who would be in charge of building these relationships and refining grant proposals for the SIA Board?
  • The semi-annual SIA Newsletter accounts for almost 100% of the printing costs. From the feedback I get from you, this is a very important part of keeping our supporters informed. Without the newsletter how would you hear about our progress and learn about new projects?
  • Spending money on things like a website and updating office software means that we are investing in the long-term effectiveness of Spirit in Action. An old laptop might be cheaper but if I waste hours waiting for websites to load, is that effective?
  • Our international SIA Small Business Fund coordinators are all volunteers in their countries. An important part of my job is to make sure they have the information and support they need to effectively train the new business leaders who receive our small business grants.

In summary, we take our work very seriously. We reduce overhead costs when we can (like not paying for an office space, for example) but SIA has also recognized the value of having a paid administrator. I am so blessed to feel appreciated and supported by the SIA Board as I work on behalf of them and you to strengthen our worldwide network and continue to evaluate how we can best empower people around the world through thoughtful assistance.

Do you buy my evaluation? Does this bring up more questions for you? I’d love to hear what you think about charities and administrative costs – post your comments below!

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