Sunday, July 22, 2012

Charity is An Act, Not an Organization

charity |ˈCHaritē|
noun ( pl. charities )

1:  the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.

2:  an organization set up to provide help and raise money for those in need.

3:  kindness and tolerance in judging others

There are 60 countries in the world that recognize English as an official language. The English language is beautiful in that, although words may share a similar definition, they are capable of conveying entirely different meanings across countries and cultures. In many cases, I find this to be an amazing thing. Language is capable of tearing down walls and building bridges. Many of the problems that our modern civilization faces can be solved with communication, and crossing the langauge barrier is one of the big hurdles that we've been able to plow through in the past 100 years or so.

Yet as 'advanced' and 'cultured' as we claim to be, it sickens me to think that a word like charity seems to be confused with guilt in the Western World while my kids in Kenya hold it to such high esteem.

My Kenyan friends seem to correlate charity with hope. At the risk of putting words in their mouths...from the conversations I've had with them, it seems that they define charity with the first definition. It's an act of giving to those in need. It doesn't necessarily come in the form of money. It can be as simple as feeding someone a meal or showing compassion to a person who might need it. Although simple in theory, it's much more powerful and moving in person. It's addicting and exciting, and seeing a person's face turn from sadness to joy only further cements the idea that charity is an action that requires you interacting with another human being. It's communicative. Interpersonal. Loving.

That's a beautiful way to see it, and it took an orphanage halfway around the world to make me see it that way.

That's also why I cannot be angry at the Western World for defining charity under the second definition. If you were to ask a person on the street in the United States what a charity is, they would mention organizations and groups. We correlate the act of charity with the act of giving money...and often strictly as that. It's that elderly lady who rings a bell around Christmas time asking for your spare change, or the endless car washes and gala dinners and raffle tickets meant to raise money for some nameless face a thousand miles away.

It's a simple cause and effect: you give a couple dollars to make a problem go away, and in turn you feel great because you are doing 'your part'. It might be to make the guilt go away or to believe, in the bottom of your heart, that you are doing something good.

Now this is the part where I'm suppose to take that way of thinking and destroy it with pathos. I'm suppose to make you feel bad for putting your spare change into the UNICEF canister sitting next to the cash register. I can't do that, though, because it's extraordinarily difficult to make a change in the world without the proper financing. In fact, I'll be asking you to donate at the end of this entry. How's that for a convincing argument?

Before you do that, though, I want to propose that you do some things first. There's a lovely website run by the National Center for Charitable Statistics that is a treasure chest of information on the non-profit sector in the United States. Go there and learn a bit more about what non-profits are doing with donations and money. If you're too lazy to check out the links, here's some information that'll put some perspective on donating (pulled straight form the NCCS website):
  • There are over 1.5 million tax-exempt organizations in the United States.
  • Non-Profits make up nearly 5.4% (as of 2009) of the National GDP
  • Non-Profits reported nearly $1.41 trillion total revenues and $1.4 trillion in total expenses in 2009
  • 22% of that revenue came from donations. the other 78% came from program service revenue, goods sold, rental and special event income
  • Of that 22%, 35% of that came from religious organizations. Education institutions came in 2nd with 14% of total estimated contributions
  • Approximately 26.3% of Americans over 16 volunteered to work with an organization in 2009.
That last figure is the one that I find most disheartening. On a yearly basis, only about 1 in 4 people actually volunteer their time and do rather than give.

It comes back to my Kenyan friends, and how they view charity in comparison to many of us in the Western World. They don't have alot, but they want to give what they have and help someone in need. It's an instinct. A foundation in their very being. They do and give, and in turn they are rewarded with a joy that very few achieve in a lifetime. 

Just recently, I had one of my friends in Kenya tell me about a program he wanted to start. It was simple: he wanted his friends in his hometown to play soccer so that they would stay off of drugs and form a sense of community. To start, they would need a soccer ball and a couple jerseys. That's it. 

Think about that for a second. If you wanted to play soccer, right now, what would you need to do? You could probably just run to a local store and buy a ball or borrow one from a friend and walk to the nearest park. You could probably join a league of people, meet many friends, and play throughout the year without much of a hassle.

Here's a fine instance where you can't do but you can empower. There's a kid somewhere with a great idea but no resources to pull it off. We have the resources to empower him to help his community. Should you give? Absolutely!

At the same time, you should look at what he is doing and see how you can do that in your own community and in your life. What can you do? What will it take to empower yourself to give back to your community?

Charity is an act. It isn't an organization of people. It isn't something to write off on your taxes. You have to do, and 1 in 4 isn't good enough for me. Too many people are complacent, and charities are focusing on fundraising and budgets over actually doing something for the world. In fact, they advertise that their donations are 'tax deductible'. It's a vicious circle, and it's up to you to consciously do something about it.

Once you do something, it's then that you can understand the true joy of empowering others to do good for this world. We're all in this together. Do. Empower. Then give. Trust me, it's easier than it sounds.
Also, if you're at that point where you feel like you want to empower some amazing people far away, consider donating to an education fund we set up for the kids in Kenya. Empowering someone is more than giving them survival tools. It's giving them the means to help themselves and find solutions for their communities, like my friend Kelvin did with soccer. I would even encourage you to visit and do a project with them. That trip may cost alot, but it'll empower you for a lifetime and give you the tools to take on the world. It will also let you see what charities do, and how you can navigate the non-profit world with confidence.

I would also encourage you to demand more from charities (like Think Kindness) and ask how your money will be used and what they are actually doing. Charitable donations need to be dialogues, and you should demand more from the people that you entend to empower.

You can find a link to the Tumaini Education Fund here

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