Category Archives: Charity

Thinking about the Charity Model and Systems Change Debate

There has been a movement afoot for the past 15 to 20 years that evolved out of a growing dissatisfaction with the charitable sector or more to the point, the Charity Model. Critics of the sector are nothing new, of course. And these criticisms are often based on unproven perceptions (e.g. there are too many charities), biases people have toward “the needy” (e.g. I made it through hell, so can you), and some that still boggle my mind like, non-profits need to be more business-like.

But the conversations I am talking about have gone further than that and very often have been initiated and led by well-respected non-profit sector leaders tired of seeing good work (or what they saw as good work) not really moving the needle of big change. The impact, they say, just hasn’t been good enough, which has evolved into concluding that the so called Charity Model has failed us all.

What I find interesting and somewhat unnerving is that this thing we call the Charity Model is in effect a descriptor of organized helping; it is not and I suggest never has been an actual model in the manner that we tend to think of models or frameworks.  Usually a model has an author or set of authors and has an intended purpose, and governs or guides how you do something. I am not aware of anyone who authored the Charity Model. As a term it represents our attempt to put meaning to what the charitable sector does and why, though we tend to spend less time on the latter.

My sense is that the Charity Model is about our desire to capture and understand how the organized expression of love or kindness is implemented through institutions and systems. It is a term that offers differentiation from the private and government sectors. How that expression is organized is certainly worthy of review and adjustment, if not significant change, but my struggle with the direction many are taking is that charity has become something sector leaders want to move away from while replacing it with something better. Continue reading Thinking about the Charity Model and Systems Change Debate

Why Speak Ill of Charity?

It’s sad. There are too many people who speak ill of charities.

Some making sweeping accusations or conclusions without any real evidence or understanding.

Some prefer to focus on the mistakes charities make (and of course they make some) rather than the good they deliver,

There are some who think the continuation of social problems means charities have failed because not everyone is housed, or healthy, or free of violence. Imagine saying to a heart surgeon she is a failure because for every life she saves, others die from heart disease – as if that is her fault. I trust you understand my point.

Some analyze charitable activity by the numbers alone, especially the the most common one, administration costs.

And for some reason some folks just aren’t charitable.  And more times than not, they are not shy about expressing their derision.

Truth be told I think leaders of charities should listen to all of those voices and all the others that arise and see what truths might exist even in those comments found to be disdainful.

To my colleagues, especially to the leaders of our charities, please rethink the current narrative about how the charity model has failed and how we need to move away from it.  Don’t replace the word charity with new words that likely won’t stand the test of time. Charity is good. Being charitable is good for all involved. Being charitable is about being human.

It’s not about moving away.

It’s not about moving on.

It’s about changing how we do charity when change is needed, when new ways are necessary.

It’s about getting better.

And it’s not about admitting defeat and then changing the conversation.

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?