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Give the gift of dignity, not dependency

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

3 simple questions to ask that will improve your charitable giving this holiday season

Toy drives, and food drives, and clothes drives… OH MY! We are grateful to live in a country with so many organizations willing to help others, but how do we know that what we are giving is actually helping?

We have created a list of 3 questions that will help you determine where to place your items of compassion so that they work towards positive lasting change. We pose these questions not to degrade any previous good will, but to share new thinking on where we all can improve in our collective efforts to alleviate material poverty.

Question 1: What programs or partners are they working with that help beneficiaries achieve financial security?

Item donation drives are forms of financial relief (giver/receiver) aid ministries, opposed to rehabilitative or developmental aid ministries. Author and professor Steve Corbett with The Chalmers Center explains these different stages of humanitarian aid in this video. Relief aid is highly effective during emergency or crisis scenarios; events that are beyond our control such as a natural disasters, death in the family, major medical emergencies, and, of course, global pandemics. These types of events take us off of our "normal" and immediate relief assistance is needed until we are back to our baseline. However, as Corbett states, if relief aide is provided for prolonged periods of time, likely there are other challenges that developmental aid would be more effective in overcoming.

All relief type aid being administered outside of a true crisis or emergency scenario runs the

risk of creating dependency on the relief. If there are other deeper root causes to the recipients inability to supply themselves or their families with these donated items (such as

addiction, social injustices, lack of job stability, mental health issues, etc.), then non-crisis

relief aid can only, at most, act as supplementary support. Without partnering with other programs or organizations targeted at determining and addressing root causes, supplementary support is likely to never lead to lasting, positive change.

See our other blog posts for addition info on the different types of humanitarian aide.

Question 2: How do beneficiaries get to participate in the ministry?

The cautions around giving freely without any expectations from the recipients have been well documented in books like Toxic Charity, When Helping Hurts, and Dead Aid. For example, a free $50 coat to a someone that is living on the street who is also, unknowingly, struggling with addiction may be sold to further the addiction instead of providing warmth during cold nights. Or, an external group bringing in truckloads of toys into a low-income community has high risk of teaching the children of that community that good things come from outside and from strangers, not from within from friends and family. Not to mention the complete omission of the dignity of the parents when strangers are able to bring more joy to their children than they can themselves during our most special time of year.

The challenge is that it is just difficult to tell if a freely given gift will lead to more good than harm. Fortunately, there are groups deploying new giving models that focus on restoring dignity to beneficiaries instead of risking creating further dependency. These models give their recipients the opportunities to participate with either their time or discounted pricing so that they receive the dignity of reward-backed work and the freedom of choice that comes with the exchange of dollars for goods. Examples of these models include Atlanta's Urban Recipe food co-op that offers donated, healthy food items in exchange for volunteer hours in managing the food exchange and Christmas stores like the ones provided by Colorado Community Church and Pride for Parents of Wake County in North Carolina that offers parents of low-income households a shopping experience at 75% or more reduced prices than retail pricing.

Question 3: How are people from the target communities involved in the outreach?

All too often, donation relief programs start from outside-in approaches. A common approach is for a group of compassionate people with a heart to help a particular community organizes a charity drive within their own networks and then brings donated items into the target community for distribution; sometimes with, but often without any involvement from the target community. There are multiple problems with this type of approach:

  1. The type of donations may be unneeded or under valued by the target community

  2. There may already be multiple other organizations providing similar items to the same community

  3. It creates a clear division between those giving and those receiving

  4. It misses out on opportunities to develop local leaders

  5. Last, but definitely not least, it teaches the children of these communities that good things come to their community, not from within.

When members from the target community are involved from the beginning, the positive impact of the good intentions can be compounded instead of risking unintended consequences. Examples of these types of models include soup kitchens that involve recipients in everything from meal planning, meal preparation, serving and cleaning to nonprofit groceries, like The Salvation Army's DMG Foods, that brings healthy groceries to food deserts and makes an effort to hire community members to operate the facilities.


Charitable programs that focus on providing relief by restoring dignity while avoiding dependency (like the ones described above) exist all over the United States. Just like in the for-profit world, where you invest your non-profit charitable time and money is the greatest power you have in creating the change you would like to see in the world. The next time you are asked to support a holiday donation drive, ask the above questions. You may grow to love the group even more or be encouraged to find a more effective solution. By asking these questions, you will also lead charity organizations to improve in these areas; leading all of our communities towards better outcomes.

If you have any additional questions that you use to help place your own charitable giving or know of any organizations that already help in this way in your community, we’d love to hear about them! Please contact us directly or provide in the comment section below.

#nonprofits #charity #givingtuesday #holidaygiving #givingseason #outcomesoveroutputs

A note from the author:

"The opinions in the article are from my own experiences and/or developed from the cited resources. These opinions and resources are based entirely on secular evidences; however, my passion and effort in this area are derived wholly from my non-secular, Christian-based beliefs and values."

Joel Kern has over a decade of experience in local and international humanitarian relief and development efforts as well as for-profit business modeling. He is also a co-founder of, a consulting group that provides data capture and analytic tools to increase outcome performance of non-profits.

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