Translating charity

As our foreign exchange experience comes to a close, I’m marveling at how little I know about Rosí’s culture. I don’t mean the little stuff. I know Dominicans drink their coffee small, strong, and syrupy sweet. I know that being a pedestrian in the Dominican Republic is hazardous to your health. And that following the traffic laws there is hazardous to your health, too. I know that few Dominicans pay their utility bills because the electricity, water, and Internet are often off for hours or days at a time. As in several hours a day, every day. Nothing is reliable, she says.

I know details. But I don’t know how that feels and informs assumptions.

When I first learned Spanish, reflexive verbs fascinated me. In particular, I was (and am, still) obsessed by the differences in language wherein your thought process and language output say “my leg broke itself on me” rather than our apologetic “I broke my leg,”or the passive “I am called by others this name” rather than our ownership claim, “my name is.”

I haven’t thought much about these linguistic differences while Rosí has been here because she speaks to us in English and her challenges are not those conventional differences. In fact, her biggest colloquial struggle, for at least the first month, was saying she wanted “light” instead of “a little” of something. She wanted a light bowl of chips and a light minute to get something done. Her predominant linguistic challenge is pronouncing vowels correctly, i.e., the lazy-mouthed American way. the schwa is not a Spanish sound, fyi.

But yesterday, her confusion about an email reply she’d gotten confused us both.

About halfway into her stay, Rosí proposed creating and funding an animal shelter back in the Dominican Republic so she could attend to all the strays running the streets of her community. She asked a charitable arm of the organization that got her here to the United States for a contribution to her cause. They turned her down and told her to try something more modest.

So she applied for funding for a friend’s chemotherapy.

The organization emailed her to praise her idea and tell her how worthy the cause is. And they told her that she just needed to organize an event or fund drive or project to which they would contribute. They gave her several examples, including a story about a woman in a similar situation who organized a party for the cancer ward of her hospital. The charitable foundation contributed to that party.

Rosí simply didn’t grok.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “I have to do something and then they will give money? So how do I get money to do an event or a project if they don’t give it to me? Why would I do something so they will give me money, if I can just ask for the money and get it for him? That’s ridiculous.”

We talked at length about ideas she could develop that would provide the trigger the foundation wanted: a way to contribute but not completely fund something. A project that would show her, Rosí’s commitment, so they could help fund her efforts, but so they weren’t just giving cash to one person.

She seemed flabbergasted. And livid. She had a worthy cause and she wanted funding, and she didn’t plan to do anything. Asking for money toward a worthy cause was doing enough.

I asked our mutual fund if I’d explained it well. I was baffled by our foreign exchange guest’s response.

But our friend explained succinctly. Where Rosí lives, there is substantial need. Someone identifies the need, raises funds, and arrives with cash. In short, Rosí watches charitable funds being delivered, not being gathered. She sees problems addressed, not to the process of identifying and measuring the problem and designing a potential solution.

I’ve marveled since high school at what it means to think of your body as something that breaks itself on you. Or the world view that develops from thinking you don’t so much own your name as receive it from others. What’s it like to think that charity is something that arrives, not something you really, really ought to do because you empathize but can’t actually fathom?

I thought about how we approach charity in this country. Throw money at someone’s idea for fixing something that’s wrong. So many words in that sentence sound problematic, don’t they? Who determines what’s wrong? Who chooses the fix? Why do we fund other people’s ideas rather than generating our own? And why throw money at need rather than spending time or educating in the interest of change or…

I thought of the op-ed by Peter Buffett, who argues that we’re going about charity all wrong. I thought of conversations I’ve had with clients, predominantly low-profit and B corp organizations who want to change the world, and the barriers that include trying hard not to just slap an American solution onto a decidedly non-American challenge.

Shouldn’t we go about charity differently? Are we swooping in with dollars and dropping them off and flying off again to our next project? Are we engaging the people for whom we’re doing charitable work to ask what they define as the problem and how they envision solutions?

I have absolutely no answers right now, but I’d like to hear your thoughts. When the need in the world seems overwhelming and we want to facilitate the solution, how do we identify need and how do we design solution?

And should we just keep writing checks to help? Is it helping? I’m not being cynical; I’m completely sincere. What is the best use of our passion for help and change and fairness and equality and rights and…should we choose one issue and focus? Should we research and become part of the charitable organizations’ resource pool? Should we close our mouths and listen to the underlying questions, hear the answers to those questions?

That’s where I’m starting right now. Closing my mouth and listening to your ideas.

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5 thoughts on “Translating charity

  1. It seems that we have created a bit of a pickle for ourselves. A large number of people in the UK and US expect something for nothing – a lifetime of fame and fortune in exchange for 3 minutes of singing badly. They want money and recognition but give nothing in return. They don’t expect to have to work hard at anything. In the same way, charities could be seen as making this worse, especially in developing countries. The desire to help and make their lives supposedly better takes away their ability to think and work for something themselves. Yes, we should help were we can, but we should be helping them to find the solutions for themselves, instead of handing it all to them on a platter. We need to get rid of this ‘the world owes me everything’ culture, but the bed has been made and I am not sure how we get out of it.

    • Believe me, I’m not arguing that people in developing nations have to “earn” the right to be helped. I’m just saying that, if you swoop in with seeds to plant and they’re incompatible with the local agriculture, the only people being helped are those who wipe their conscience clean when they donate.

      Thanks for pointing out the ludicrous nature of the “sing for three minutes and become independently wealthy” expectation. I’d forgotten that nonsense. ;-)

        • I’m sure it has always been there, in one form or another. I just think that society now seems to place a greater emphasis on it than it used to. It is in our faces a lot more due to the development of social media etc. However, maybe I would be saying something similar 100+ years ago!

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