Four Steps to Effective Charity | by Patrick Oetting

Effective Charity

When it comes to disaster relief, too often we fall prey to Bob Geldof’s “we just need to do something” attitude. But, is this a sustainable approach to charity and relief? Does it meet the need, or exacerbate it?

Last Friday CBS News released an article titled, “When Disaster Relief Brings Anything but Relief.” In it, Juanita Rilling, the Director of the Center for International Disaster Information in Washington D.C., brings forward many examples of the unintended consequences of our relief efforts that left me quite shocked. And you might guess, we here at PovertyCure aren’t exactly strangers to relief horror stories.

Please indulge me as I share a couple of poignant examples.

In 1998 a tremendous earthquake shook Honduras.  The seismic event left 11,000 dead and countless others without shelter, food or sanitary water. In the midst of this genuine crisis, a supply plane full of desperately needed survival goods was unable to land, and thus save lives, because donated winter coats had been left on the runway. Yes you read that correctly – winter coats… in Honduras!  Funny as that sounds, people were imperiled because well-meaning givers clogged an already weak infrastructure with garments no one in the entire country needed.

In 2012 a gunman killed 20 students and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. In what was surely intended as a kind-hearted response, people sent tens of thousands of teddy bears to Sandy Hook.  The outpouring prompted a school administrator to comment, “I think a lot of the stuff that came into the warehouse was more for the people that sent it, than it was for the people in Newtown.”

I’m reminded of Michael Fairbanks profound statement in the documentary film, Poverty, Inc., “Having a heart for the poor isn’t hard, having a mind for the poor – that’s the challenge.”

When we see others in pain or in need, our natural reaction is to help in any way possible. And when that person or group is a neighbor, we are able to better discern the type of charity we need to dispense.  But, when we send relief from a far-away place, without local knowledge of what is needed, our aid can be detrimental to the community development that we intended.

You might be asking, “Are you saying we shouldn’t help those who are suffering from a natural disaster?”

I’m not – we absolutely should.  But the examples above show that charity is complicated.  With that in mind, I offer that there are four things we MUST do before we dispense aid to a community outside our own – whether in the U.S. or international.

First, we need to stop, take a deep breath and think about the situation. We may, after all, have no idea what is truly going on.  A little humility could avoid the useless expenditure of our scarce resources.  Such as, distributing winter coats to Honduras, used tea bags to Rwanda or old breast milk to Haiti – yes, all three of these are real examples.  Just reading them here, I’m confident that you see how silly unconsidered aid can be.  Still, as you read above, this silliness can turn serious in a heartbeat and cause actual harm to those who most need our help.

Second, we need to research charity and aid organizations before we pledge our time, money or encourage others to give. It is not enough that we send a text message donating $10 because a celebrity prompts us to during a concert.  It may be cool to blindly promote a new initiative on social media because it is popular. But is it effective? If we want to ensure our resources create the impact we intend, it is eminently important that we know how they are being used.

Third, we need to hold the organizations that we choose to support accountable. All too often individuals donate to initiatives and never follow-up. We get caught up in our daily routines or we move on to the newer, more urgent relief effort and then forget to check in with the organization we previously tasked with a complex objective. If, relief organizations know what their donors expect, and follow up on results, they will dispense our scarce resources in a more thoughtful manner.

Fourth (and most importantly), we need to get on our knees and pray. Actually, you don’t have to pray on your knees. I do. But, I’m tall. My broader point is that much too often we rely on our human insights and resources to take care of astoundingly complex problems. Poverty is a labyrinthine – far too big of a problem for human minds, no matter how gifted, to solve alone. Oftentimes, the most compassionate act we can do for those suffering is to ask divine intervention, forgiveness, mercy and relief. I can guarantee this act of surrender is much more effective than sending winter coats to Honduras.

Relief is absolutely needed. That’s why it is imperative that we take steps in advance, get to know who is doing effective, ethical and considered aid work before the next catastrophe strikes.  We are called to act and to do so with humility, thoughtfulness, accountability and God’s supernatural guidance and grace.   If we don’t, we will continue to waste our resources and quite possibly cause even more harm to those we most want to help. But, if we do, there’s no limit to the life-giving change we can bring to countless communities around the world.

Patrick Oetting

Patrick Oetting is the Strategy and Engagement Manager of PovertyCure, an Acton Institute Initiative.  

Antonio, A Focus on What Works | by Patrick Oetting


What causes wealth?

The tendency is to focus on the factors that create poverty. The results are often solutions that undermine the dignity of the individual – solutions imposed from a “higher-authority” on people that we deem “poor.” Conversely, when we look at the factors that cause wealth, we begin to see individuals in a new light – as the heroes of their own stories.

This is precisely the scenario I witnessed this past week in San Juan Comolapa, Guatemala – a pueblo located about two hours drive outside of Guatemala City.

Five years ago, Antonio heard the message of personal liberty and the power of enterprise while listening to a radio feed hosted by the Universidad Francisco Marroquin. Soon after, he discovered the PovertyCure DVD series, which he and his son used to learn English! These core messages have drastically changed Antonio’s outlook on life and helped him cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset that has affected the entire San Juan Comolapa community.

In those 5 short years Antonio founded a microenterprise firm, a childhood learning center, and a think-tank devoted to seeing increased freedom in San Juan Comolapa. At Antonio’s learning center I witnessed firsthand the innovative approach that he has taken to educate hundreds of children, mostly from a background of poverty.

This small learning center operates with a for-profit business model. In a town that seemingly has little to offer, Antonio has provided such a great curriculum that parents are willing to pay a fee for the children to learn. The reasonable costs involved motivate parents to both stay involved in their children’s education and hold the educators responsible. This self-sustaining model also allows Antonio to continue scaling his business and thus reach more and more children throughout San Juan Comolapa. As I heard Antonio’s vision, I was inspired. He plans to spread this model, and the skills it offers children, throughout Guatemala.

When you couple the effect of the school with the impact that his micro-loan business is having on local vendors, there’s no question that Antonio has used the PovertyCure principles to dramatically improve life for many in San Juan Comolapa.

Antonio’s entrepreneurial mindset has also rubbed off on his family. His 13-year-old son, Jimmy, who served as our translator for the trip, is already a high-level computer programmer and his video-blog is a YouTube sensation in Guatemala. Antonio’s brothers have formed a band that now travels the world, recently opening for Jennifer Lopez in Las Vegas.

Antonio, who once asked for help, has seen his family rise out of poverty through entrepreneurship.  His businesses now serve hundreds of families in his community, giving them the same chance to move from dependence to independence.

When communities have access to economic tools and the freedom and knowhow to use them, they will inevitably succeed. We have found this to be true not only in Antonio’s case, but in hundreds of stories that we have captured from our partner network. They show us that it is high time that society at large begin to look at the factors that cause wealth, rather than focusing on negative attributes of individuals and communities that harm dignity and perpetuate cycles of poverty.


Patrick Oetting is the Strategy and Engagement Manager of PovertyCure, an Acton Institute Initiative.