Does Charity Prevent Collective Possibility?

Could it be that formalized charity actually prevents us seeing and acting on collective possibility?

I don’t mean charity in the classic sense of loving and caring for one another. I mean organized charity, institutional charity which by its very nature separates those who set out to help others and the others who are seen as needing help.

You might protest and say it’s not so, but think about it. How often is it that recipients of service sit on the boards of non-profits? How many sit on advisory committees? How many end up working for non-profits? How often are they authentically included in the design of the services created to help them?

The way we structure things typically ends up in the structure becoming the focus, the priority. By structure, I mean our organizations. We create them to help others, but the more sophisticated we become in our work, the more attention we must pay to sustaining the structure.

This leads us to competing with one another for limited resources – or what we perceive to be limited resources. We begin to see our plans to help people as our organizational plans. We talk about positioning our organizations as the “go-to” organization for this or that.

We may collaborate on proposals, but we also do so to compete with others who will be making proposals to the same funder or stream of money.

We make plans to expand our organizations and tell ourselves it is our right to do so, but most often fail to truly address how accumulating resources for “our” plans could negatively impact others who are also trying to be helpful to others.

Lately we have started saying things like charity is not good enough; we need to focus more on systems change. We don’t really question the very nature of organized charity, do we? Instead we lament that our charitable actions are not solving big social problems like poverty and homelessness. Rather than tackle the divide between people (helpers and those being helped), we turn to mustering our attention to fixing social policy and systems that are not working.

At best we will consult with users of service on these big challenges, but rarely, if we are honest, are we fully engaged with them on what those big changes are. Inclusion means more than focus groups and town hall meetings.

Perhaps systems change is really about how human service organizations are structured, how they exclude the many so that the few can figure out what to do.

Imagine if human service organizations and their funders invested more time, resources, and attention in community development, working in community, with community, perhaps for community to collectively identify community aspirations as well as problems and obstacles to a better life.

Perhaps governments and funders, especially those who talk about “People First” and “wrap around services” and all of our other well-intentioned concepts, should fund  community animation and help communities with the resources they need not just to live on their own but to live and work together on forging and sustaining a strong, health community.

I am not saying we do not need services. Of course we do. The question is not is there unnecessary duplication of services. People need choice and services provided should not be homogeneous offerings or housed in some mega charity akin to a non-profit version of a Wal-Mart.

The question is why do we need so many services? What is not happening that creates such demand for service interventions?

It’s not just that we need more collaboration or more integrated services or mergers and so on, especially if what we are doing is reshaping what is not working into a different version of what is not working.

Could it be that formalized charity actually prevents us seeing and acting on collective possibility?

That’s a wicked question that we need to pay some attention to, don’t you think?

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