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After Disaster Relief: 10 Pointers for Charitable Giving that Sustains Social Change

Posted on: Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Keywords: Emergency Relief, Economic Justice

The extraordinary disasters that punctuated 2005—the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the mudslides in Central America, and the earthquake in Pakistan to name a few—were each met with an outpouring of charitable giving. This generosity saved thousands of lives and continues to support critical relief efforts that will help survivors rebuild.

As people who are committed to building a better world, we want our giving to support systemic change as well as meet urgent needs. Yet, at last count only about three percent of the $175 billion that people in the US gave to charity went to social-change initiatives. The rest went to groups that try to relieve the symptoms of social and economic problems, but don't necessarily achieve long-term solutions.

One of the keys to socially conscious giving is to support organizations that have the capacity both to meet people's immediate needs (whether created by natural disasters or disastrous policies) and to create long-term solutions to crises. As a guide for your own giving, here are 10 criteria for identifying organizations oriented towards creating lasting social change:

  1. Look for organizations that understand the link between meeting urgent needs and creating social change—people cannot focus on long-term issues until their basic needs are met. For example, Iraqi women are threatened by the loss of their rights under a new constitution. But most women are more concerned about ensuring their families' physical safety than about political rights. Providing food, shelter, health care, and education, then, is not only a humanitarian imperative, it's also a necessary component of creating social change. But meeting humanitarian needs—however urgent—is not enough. To move beyond a "band-aid" approach, organizations must also work to hold governments accountable to meeting people's basic needs. After all, non-profit organizations, no matter how competent, are no substitute for responsible government-nor should they have to be.
  2. Look for organizations that draw on the knowledge, expertise, and self-defined needs of those who are directly impacted by the issues they address. Often, the people who have a first-hand understanding of a crisis have been denied the very skills and resources needed to address it. Look for organizations that support-rather than replicate-the activities of existing community-based groups, and that leave leadership skills and resources in the hands of community members.
  3. Look for organizations that talk about root causes of want and injustice, and articulate a vision of social justice embodied in concrete strategies to move toward that vision.
  4. Look for organizations that see their work as part of a broader nexus of social issues. It might be strategic for an organization to focus its work narrowly, but it has to be able to articulate the relationship between this work and the wider array of issues that confront us. Single-issue organizing may be strategic, but single-issue politics is not.
  5. Look for organizations that understand that the old slogan, "Think Globally, Act Locally," must now be turned on its head. Because local conditions are so heavily impacted by global trends (like migration and trade liberalization), community-based activists must be equipped to understand and influence politics nationally and even internationally. Otherwise local work remains a limited and, ultimately, exhausting venture. Meanwhile, the original injunction to "act locally" remains crucial: work has to be rooted in community priorities to stay concrete and relevant to most people.
  6. Look for organizations that offer younger people opportunities to develop as leaders and see themselves as part of a tradition of political work. These organizations are better able to build on past achievements and be responsive to new ideas.
  7. Look for organizations that show a healthy respect for a multiplicity of strategies. Sometimes organizations must choose whether to protest from outside or advocate from within a given system. A single organization might not mobilize street demonstrations and elbow their way to the negotiating table. But regardless of which strategy they adopt, organizations should be communicating and coordinating across this "insider/outsider" divide.
  8. Look for organizations that know the importance of engaging with institutional political power—like the power vested in local government, Congress, or the United Nations—even if they do not work in the political arena. Without access to power, there is no enduring social change.
  9. Look for organizations that recognize the ways that powerful institutions, such as corporations and government, deflect opposition by appearing to respond constructively to criticism while continuing their destructive policies. Often this process involves offering funding or a "seat at the table" to non-profits that wind up compromising on principles rather than giving up newfound access to power.
  10. Look for organizations that are working to increase access to education and overcome the "digital divide" that has kept information and communication technology in the hands of a privileged few. For millions of people around the world-particularly women and girls-the denial of education limits their potential as people and exposes them to greater risk of poverty, political disenfranchisement, malnutrition, and diseases like HIV/AIDS. Today, a key component of education is technological training, which requires access to technology as well as education.

Supporting long-term social change is not always very tangible or glamorous. It requires a commitment to training, capacity-building, and developing networks, strategies, and infrastructure. This is not the stuff of photo-ops and sound-bites. But it is the stuff of sustainable social change.

However you choose to direct your giving, keep in mind that progressive social change is an achievable goal. The evidence is all around us: in the embattled but concrete gains of the women's, labor, civil rights, and anti-war movements in the US and in international movements for human rights, Indigenous Peoples' rights, and economic justice, just to name a few. Money alone can't change the world, but it is surely a crucial ingredient for building movements that can.


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