One of the trepidations I have about charitable giving is that writing a check to a charity can actually distance me from the people I am concerned about. So if I am concerned about teen pregnancy, writing a check can actually put a barrier between me and girls who get pregnant before age 18.
How could that be? Well it may involve factors having to do with my internal conceptions. I may use charitable donation as a way to emphasize that I am different from those too-young women saying, look how different I am – I am even empowered to offer my financial resources, while they are needy.
Another way that simply donating might maintain the difference between me and them is by making me feel that I have answered my concern, quenched my care, by contributing. Problem solved; no need for further action. Also if I feel that I have done my part, I may never learn more about who those young mothers-to-be are and may continue to walk around with my opinions, my misconceptions (pun intended!) and my biases intact. These may include that pregnant teens are all poor or from bad neighborhoods.
If the nonprofit where I send my donation uses stories about teens that are the most desperate, in an effort to motivate my financial giving, it may do nothing to help re-educate me. If they do not include a program to engage me, not just volunteering for them but engaging me with that population in some way, I may remain at a distance. And if it sends me a hat with the name of the organization on it or a tote bag with its slogan, I may be even more sure that I have made a big difference, and less motivated to actually get involved.
What I am getting at here is that if you are concerned about a specific population or problem, really concerned, then it behooves you to get personally involved. In that case, your financial contribution is just one of the things you should give along with your curiosity, your skills, muscle, time, energy, voice, etc. or at least a few of these.
And in the end, I believe you need to risk creating a relationship with those people or that issue. In relationship, you will really find out about at least one of those teen mothers-to-be and will understand her gifts, strengths, and potential as well as what she needs for support. As the same time, she might find out about you and your vulnerabilities, wants, and cares as well as the gifts you have to give.
So how do you do that? If you have local concerns, it should be pretty easy to volunteer at a local charity and get engaged in a way that you can get real with some of their beneficiaries. This might be feeding the hungry in your town, or tutoring young men in a local prison.
If you are concerned about people who are far from where you live, in Africa or Central America for instance, you still have some opportunities to establish real in-person relationships. One of those is through your personal travel. There is an article today in the New York Times about travel efforts and companies that have philanthropic components. There are also international volunteer opportunities; so that you can use your vacation time to go somewhere and work to support people who need it (you can do that domestically as well!). For this option, you may want to start with the United Nations Volunteer program, World Volunteer Web.
Finally, and this is probably the most challenging, is a Pilgrimage of Reverse Mission because it,
does not include constructing buildings or providing specialized medical services in impoverished areas. A ‘pilgrimage of reverse mission’ is about building relationships…
This is a program of a Christian organization called the Ministry of Money. They seek, through these journeys to help the travelers they host to,
• express our gratitude,
• acknowledge our responsibility,
• become agents of systemic change and reconciliation, and
• be responsive to new forms of discipleship.
It is about being present with people who are the poorest of the poor to create meaningful relationships with them. Sounds challenging and risky? Yes it certainly looks like it. Even if you are not able to take that big step, find a way to establish a relationship with someone who belongs to a social group you are concerned about deeply. It will teach you so much more about them and about yourself. You will help just by your being truly present with them. And you will have a clearer idea of how much and what other ways you can give generously to them.