Charity and NGOs – Let’s Get Real

I’ve been seeing this article, Dear World, Let’s Stop Giving Our Crap to the Poor, going around the Internet recently, and I think it highlights an important concept that should be widely considered.

The author describes her experience bringing a donated iPhone to a NGO worker in Kenya. When they attempted to use the phone in the field, “it wouldn’t hold a charge for more than 10 minutes. The phone was junk.”

She also raises a crucial question that many people – especially in the Western world – should keep in mind: “Why do we give others – often those in service to the poor or the poor themselves – something we wouldn’t keep or give ourselves?”

Why do we think that it is acceptable to give our old, worn-out goods to others? Why do we assume that these goods are wanted regardless of their condition? The author of the article cites the typical logic: something is better than nothing. But let’s be real – something isn’t always better than nothing. That logic becomes degrading when the donated gifts are computers that take 20 minutes to start up. Phones that cannot hold a charge. Chairs that teeter and tip over. Keurig machines missing parts. Clothing with stains and/or holes. Clown paintings. (I have seen each one of these items come from donations. For real.)

How are these items useful to anyone?

Donation boxes – whether to people or to organizations – should not serve as garbage cans that boost egos. If you are going to donate, donate something that will meet a need beyond clearing out your closet.

The author of the cited article is not advocating a complete halt of donations, nor am I. Like the author herself, a large portion of my closet is secondhand, and I have secondhand electronics that work just fine. The difference lies in the quality of the goods: “There’s nothing wrong with used or second-hand. It’s often my first and favorite choice. Many organizations and ministries depend on used gifts. But if we give used, it should be our best…I am saying if we give it away, it should be something we would use ourselves.”

This is not a new phenomenon. Dan Pallotta’s Uncharitable provides an interesting perspective on donations, the organizational structure of nonprofit organizations, and society’s expectations from the label “nonprofit.” Whether or not you agree with his ideas, Pallotta will force you to reconsider why development – both international and domestic – is treated the way it is. Reasoning behind why NGOs tend to veer away from innovation and risk will become a little clearer. It is a provoking read, and it illuminates a perspective that is just a bit uncomfortable – it pushes at Western cultural norms around NGOs.

After working/interning/fellow-ing in a total of six nonprofit organizations, I can attest to the reality of the practice of donation dumping. The things that I have seen donated would astound someone used to, well, functional items in the work place. Again, how helpful is an old computer if it takes 20 minutes to start up? There is a limited amount of work that can be done on such an old device. Scenarios like this are one contributing factor that hinders the work that NGOs and NGO workers can realistically do. Our mission statements are big enough; we don’t need to fight with our workspaces as well.

This was particularly evident when I interned at a refugee resettlement agency. People and companies would give boxes and boxes of goods. But these goods would be a mishmash of American commercialization, a hodgepodge of articles that formed an abstract painting of household goods. Useful items were few and far between. You can’t send a newly arrived refugee mother home with half of a Keurig machine and expect that these incomplete pieces of machinery will help her settle into her new home. You just can’t.

I now see the same mentality emerge here in India. Things are just given. We need more than that. We need thoughtful giving. We need conscious citizens who both want to help and are realistic about the difference between second-hand and trash.

We need more thought because we can do better.