STMleader.com

Want to help the poor? Don’t make this rookie mistake

A few years ago I was at a church that wanted to help the poor, so we started looking for some poor people to help.  We formed a committee that was focused on local poverty issues and began meeting to discuss what we might do.

Someone in our group had noticed a local social housing community close to us and we called a meeting to make some plans. People in the church definitely wanted to give and help the poor out. Many gracious and innovative ideas to help out were shared at our meeting. People discussed what skills they had, and what they could bring. We talked about the source of the problems, the demographics and “felt needs” of the community. We came up with awesome solutions.

  • We could help with simple car maintenance for single moms.
  • We could help give people a hand with moving
  • We could put on a health clinic
  • We can give people rides
  • We can give away our used clothes and furniture.

All great suggestions – now the question changed. Where should we begin?

How to help the poor

What was the biggest need? What would give us the greatest bang for the buck? The problem with our desire to help the poor was that we had forgotten one small but important detail in all of our planning.

No one who lived in that community was at our meeting.

We were a bunch of strangers, trying to help the poor community down the road based on our “do-good-er-ism” feelings about our actions!

In looking back, as strange as this is, it certainly is not unusual. I frequently hear of groups meeting to discuss different plans and programs to help out a less fortunate group of people. Some of those groups create huge programs and invest $1000’s of dollars (and a lot more) in starting a great new program.

They usually look great to outsiders (and donors) and they usually fail.

Thankfully, once we realized our big mistake, we changed our plans.

Start different

In the end we had a BBQ and invited the neighbours. That helped us to discover who lived there, what they were like and what they thought about where they lived. We met people who were willing to meet with us and to get to know us. We began to connect with one another.

At one of our BBQs we gave out some disposable cameras to the kids and had them take pictures of their community from their eyes.

That was the start of something great!

 

So what was the rookie mistake that we made?

It is the same one most people make when they first try to help the poor:

Rookies ask each other “what do those people need?”

There is nothing wrong with the question if it is asked at the right time. The right time is when a disaster has just happened and a building has fallen on someone or a child is drowning.

In an emergency like that, get moving! Save lives.

But as super-great as that question is at that time, it is perhaps the most horribly ineffective and damaging question you could ask at any other time. Don’t do it!

Asking “what do you need” assumes a few things.

1. They are in need
2. You can meet the need
3. You should meet the need
4. It will help if you meet the need

The first two assumptions are usually correct. There are (1) real needs around the world, and we (2) usually can spare a few bucks to do something about it.

The problem is that those first two assumptions often convince us that our third and fourth assumptions are also correct.

That is a rookie mistake!

Asking the question of need most often sets us up as paternalistic benevolent dictators – even though that is the last thing you want to be! Asking “what people need” usually leads to disaster in a few months, it will almost always fail within 2 years.

 

So what should you do instead?

If there are real needs and you want to help out in a meaningful way, there is another way to get involved. This will work, but it takes time and patience.

It starts when you ask other questions entirely. Better Questions.

The type of questions that help move you from having a good idea to starting a good plan. They lead towards the holy grail of all good poverty reduction work – sustainability.

These Better Questions also reveal problems and solutions, but they do so from a very different point of view. Rather than showing your vision of the problem and your idea of the solution, when you ask Better Questions, the community itself begins to show off their own problems and internal solutions.

The people you are thinking about going to help begin to show off what they can do rather than what they need. As a development worker (or anyone who works with the poor) these kind of Better Questions are referred to as “Appreciative Inquiry” or “Asset Based Community Development” (ABCD).

Trust development workers and agencies, if there is a way to take an idea and give it a fancy name or  to add an acronym they will do so.

 

What we tried

Anyways. The ways that different agencies use Appreciative Inquiry are numerous, but one I particularly enjoy is “picture taking” It is what we did in the community.

The idea is simple:

  1. Loan out 5-10 disposable (or digital cameras) to a bunch of people in the community.
  2. Ask these new photographers to go around their community and take pictures of:
    • the things that they are proud of
    • the things that they want to change.
  3. Show off their pictures and invite the community to discuss their findings
  4. Ask people what they think. Is there anything in particular that the community members want to share with one another, or tackle together?
  5. Follow their lead!

The difference is who is leading.

Asking questions in this way allows the local people to show off their community, to own the solutions. They will point out with pride the things that they love as well as share their real feelings about the problems in their community.

You don’t need to do this for people, they already know for themselves.

Have you ever tried to help someone out and made a mess of it?

Mark Crocker

9 responses on "Want to help the poor? Don't make this rookie mistake"

  1. It’s a scary thing to do. Look at the people around you and accept yourself as a part of them and responsible for their well-being. To see it as our well-being. There’s a lot of guilt in that first encounter, confessing how long we’ve lived in the same area and how we’ve designed our lives to avoid these uncomfortable and convicting interactions.

  2. Very good idea to let a camera to people in the community so they can take pictures of what they consider important to them. This is a great way to connect with them.

    I will continue to read these articles in a future closer. Thank you for your teachings, it will be beneficial to my ministry.

  3. Profile photo of Mark Crocker

    hey Mark (good name) there is definitely a big challenge when we start in where someone else has already set up an expectation, but the truth is that this is everywhere around the globe. There is not a place on the planet that has not been touched by the attitude you are describing.

    My advice? it starts with our presenting ourself in a very different way (friend not benefactor) and taking it very slow so we can prove our intention over time.

    The risk is that we default to what we have “learned” from a lifetime of hearing how we are supposed to help the poor. If is easy to up and we need to be super vigilant

  4. Like the thinking and the perspective on this… reality for me – when I’ve gone where some one else already started the work – is trying to change the nationals perspectives and expectations… ugh. How do we do that? and, you just can’t say NO – right, Ryan?

  5. I love your idea of handing out cameras and getting the members of the community to take the pictures and share what the pictures mean to them. I think my temptation would be to take those pictures and try to find a “fix” for them, when the planning, dreaming, & developing truly needs to be THEIRS. I look forward to letting some beautiful, intelligent national people take the lead on projects for their community.

    • Profile photo of Mark Crocker

      appreciate it Danielle! It is a constant struggle to position the people in the community as the leaders of the project. if we ask the question “should someone else be doing this” we may help ourselves to remember that we are not the ones who develop a community

  6. Good advice!

Leave a Message

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2016, 2017 © Mark Crocker. All rights reserved.