Let’s Update How We Think About Charity this International #CharityDay

Alexandra Nemeth

Senior Manager, Content Marketing & Storytelling at MovingWorlds

Every year on September 5th, citizens around the world observe the International Day of Charity. Established by the United Nations in 1997, the International Day of Charity is meant to educate and mobilize stakeholders all around the world to help others through volunteer and philanthropic activities.

Our world has changed considerably since #CharityDay was first observed over two decades ago, and our collective concept of “charity” must evolve as well. The Oxford Dictionary defines charity as “the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.” But this narrow view implies a problematic power dynamic wherein the people in a position of relative wealth and power are making the decisions about how much (and what kind of) help others deserve. Indeed, this can even undermine democracy – the very system it is set in place to support.

We must find a way to go beyond the charity mindset of “helping people” to supporting a truly transformational movement that achieves real change in our communities. To quote Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Wealth, “It feels like a day of reckoning for the charitable sector to peel back all the layers of the facade of charity.” Edgar’s work reflects the broader shift happening in the paradigm of how we talk about charity, wealth, economic justice, and the legacies of colonialism around the world. 

Similarly, Anand Giridharadas, in his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, shares that “By refusing to risk its way of life, by rejecting the idea that the powerful might have to sacrifice for the common good, [the elite] clings to a set of social arrangements that allow it to monopolize progress and then give symbolic scraps to the forsaken—many of whom wouldn’t need the scraps if the society were working right.”

At the heart of the act of charity lies a desire to help others, and that is a beautiful thing. But charity must evolve. Our goal in writing this piece is not to shame or blame, but rather to honor the purpose of #CharityDay by educating people to mobilize in the most respectful, ethical, and sustainable way. Continue reading to learn about 3 outdated views about charity, and what to update them with instead.

Partner with the people you want to help

Traditionally, charity has involved groups with wealth and power inserting themselves into communities with less, and then projecting their views on what should be done. Underlying this dynamic is the paternalistic assumption that more wealth equals more knowledge. Not only does this false assumption erode the dignity of populations that the wealthy are trying to support, but it also has the potential to cause significant damage. Consider, for example, the case of Renee Bach, a 20 year old American with no medical training who ran a center in Uganda for critically ill children – of which 105 died. 

In our view, charity is not something handed down from on high; when done right, it’s a collaborative process that unlocks creative solutions by valuing the knowledge on both sides. As Ernesto Sirolli shares in his popular Ted Talk (below), “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!”

The people who are experiencing the problem every day have a depth of knowledge about the issue that an outsider simply can’t. Taking a human-centered design approach is one solution here that should be embraced by all those who want to help, and it starts with putting the people you’re working to develop a solution for at the heart of the process, and operating with the assumption that the solution lies within that community rather than outside of it. Not only will the solutions you develop this way be more appropriate for the problem at hand, they’ll also be more likely to be adopted long-term because they are tailored to the local norms and culture.

If you’re giving money instead of time and skills, the same principles apply. Before you donate to an organization, make sure that its leadership embodies this idea of partnership and its strategy and operations are led by those from the population it is trying to serve.

Start with a real need

A quick Google search for ‘volunteer abroad opportunities’ yields over 75 million results. That’s a lot of options! When looking for an opportunity to make a real impact, it’s important to remember that not all volunteer opportunities are created equally. Even with the best of intentions, there are some situations in which you’ll end up actually creating more harm than good if you don’t know what to look for.

Consider this example of orphanage voluntourism in Cambodia. In this case, voluntourists who want to ‘play with kids’ are inadvertently fueling the exploitation of the very children they think they are helping. Whether you’re giving your money or your time and skills, avoid the perils of voluntourism by:

  1. Starting with a real need, then transferring skills and know-how to groups already developing local solutions
  2. Checking for co-investment from the organization, which signals that your skills are actually needed (rather than a tourist experience you pay for)
  3. Ensuring equal footing and focusing on partnership
  4. Collaboratively preparing and planning 
  5. Planning for the long-term, and measuring success accordingly

Find more guidance about skills-based volunteering vs. voluntourism here.

Focus on the long-term 

Whether you’re offering financial or skills-based support, your contribution will have a more sustainable impact when its going towards building long-term capacity rather than one-off support. This doesn’t mean you have to make a repeat commitment, but rather that the commitment you make is adding value long-term rather than creating a cycle of dependency on future volunteers or outside funds.

Look for locally-led organizations that are working to upskill, train, and empower the community being served rather than focusing on short-term solutions. Platforms like GlobalGiving make it easier than ever to connect with organizations around the world working toward advance meaningful causes that you care about. For larger institutions, tools like CharityNavigator and Effective Altruism make it easier to find details about an organization’s mission, finances, and impact before donating money. Be sure to also verify that the organization you choose is tracking and reporting on their impact so you know where your support is going. And one more thing: don’t become a charity #overheadhole.

When volunteering your time and skills, keep in mind these 7 keys for successfully creating a sustainable impact:

  1. Thoughtfully identify projects that address local talent gaps
  2. Embrace collaborative planning with a focus on partnership and cross-cultural readiness. 
  3. Focus on solving the most pressing, skills-based challenges.
  4. Ensure transfer of knowledge and skills to local team members.
  5. Identify opportunities to improve organizational strategy and capability.
  6. Build connections to a global network.
  7. Think strategically about transition and sustainability plans.

For more details about each of the keys to success above, check out this article about our methodology to ensure charity efforts make a real impact in Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Those of us committed to social change must also make a commitment to lifelong growth and learning. Taking the time to read this article demonstrates your willingness to help, and our hope is that this #MakeVolunteeringMatter series will empower you to do so ethically and sustainably. Together, we really can change the world for the better!

For more guidance on how to contribute to lasting change, make sure to check out the MovingWorlds Institute, and our #SDGsandMe education campaign