We are taught to believe in the power of giving; that living selfless lives is what is best. Although this mantra still rings true, it is one that sadly is being exploited all across this globe.
A few weeks back the Tampa Bay Times, in conjunction with the Center of Investigative Reporting, published an article titled "The 50 Worst Charities". Upon opening it I was shocked to read about the many popular charities that give as little as 3% of their donations to their cause. Even though I may not have given them my money or time, I felt cheated. You give hoping to help feed a family, send a kid to school or save an endangered animal. Finding out that your charity (or charities) of choice is spending your hard earned money on paper clips, fancy fliers and lunches out instead of on food, clothing and school supplies is disheartening.
Over the last couple of weeks I have witnessed begging on new levels and have been first handily given a run for my money. Swindlers lurk every where and are ready to take your money--how ever great or small--at any moment. In fact, it's almost standard operation here in East Africa. A mzungo, or white person, is a dollar sign. To a Kenyan, Ethiopian, Tanzanian, Ugandan, wzungo (white people) represent wealth and a lot of it and it is because of this a dark culture of exploitation of the rich and poor has emerged.
This past week I learned of a student that was in need of a scholarship to attend secondary school. The principal informed the government and local charities that this student needed assistance. Many people and charities spoke up and were willing to sponsor said student. The money poured into help this student and all walked away happy, especially the principal who walked away with a load of cash in his pocket because he managed to get over 5 people to pay the student's school fees.
Actions like this are common here. A bus load of tourists rolls into a children's home (orphanage) and see abandoned children who pull at their heart. Feeling guilty for what they have and the fact that they cannot take the kids home, they leave a pile of cash or a stack of new toys at the door. Within minutes of them leaving, the cash is distributed and those toys are hauled to the market and sold off, leaving the kids in the same sad shape they were left in.
Greed has caused a dark shadow to form over the act of giving. It has caused many to doubt and distrust even the most needy of people. You look at a five year old with torn dusty clothes who has sticks as legs and question if they were told to act this way. It sounds absurd until you find out that the $10,000 you donated was stollen in one such act.
As disheartening as this all may be the act of giving should prevail, but perhaps with a little caution. People all around the world still need, and rely, on the compassion of others. Children in orphanages still need love and attention, the black rhino still needs to be protected from poachers, and students across this globe still need schools, pens and pencils and so it is our job, as the donors, to make sure that we give wisely.
So what does giving wisely mean? It means checking your charities financial reports. Find out where they are spending the bulk of their money--are they really funding cancer research? Or sending kids to school?
If it is possible, give to a specific project. Donate money to build a school, play ground or animal pen. This way you can not only hire a local worker but you can see your project through. Giving money directly to a person or orphanage means much of it could go to line the pockets of those in power. If you do give directly, check to see that other organizations aren't also funding that same project and perhaps request a plaque to help keep "piggy backing" at bay.
Finally, donate to a charity that is sustainable. Often times volunteers come to a place, work on a project ,and when they leave the project falls to shambles because the locals are not invested or adequately informed on it. While working with Project Kenya Sister Schools I have learned the power of community development. By involving the community and giving them the power to decide where PKSS's efforts are needed most they have been able to sustainably change many people's lives who live around the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
As cynical as this all may seem, the act of charity still holds much power--so long as you and your money are not taken for a long and bumpy ride.