Broad strokes are necessary in some areas: economies, for instance, can’t be managed efficiently on a person to person basis. Environmental protections can’t account for every candy wrapper thrown onto the sidewalk. Similarly, some decisions must be made by a select few for the benefit of many. In theory, this is how our government works; we delegate decision making to elected representatives. Charitable work, on the other hand, is most effective on a small scale. Acting locally, and letting communities lead the way, insures positive outcomes.
Small organizations are inherently based in their communities, while large organizations are, by nature, distant from a substantial portion of the people they serve. Even in the nonprofit sector, American free enterprise and capitalism encourage expansion, often to the detriment of quality. As charities grow, layers of bureaucracy begin to burden them with administrative costs. Small charities don’t deal with this problem. They work directly with communities, focusing less on growth, and more on service.
Local organizations, if run correctly, benefit from continuous direct contact with the group they are serving. Ideas come from within the community, and are thus more suited to specific needs. Instead of applying a blanket solution to all groups, small organizations can tailor solutions to individuals.
Additionally, organizations led by community members create self sufficiency, because they don’t rely on exterior support to function. There is no hierarchical relationship between the giver and the receiver of charity. Conversely, outside organizations can unintentionally create economic and mental dependency in the communities they serve, which is damaging in the long run.
Personal volunteer work should adhere to the same principles. First and foremost, listen to the community you are trying to help, even if you don’t fully agree with their requests. Natural disaster relief efforts often suffer from this kind of misguided charity. Sending cash can be considered undesirable to the giver, so many people will send food which goes bad, or supplies which aren’t needed.
Don’t act based on what is comfortable; if you really want to help, personal satisfaction should not be a priority. Service is not about you or your feelings. “Voluntourism” is a prime example of people violating this rule: rich kids spend thousands of dollars traveling to poor regions of the world, building schools, mentoring children or performing other quasi-helpful acts, then leaving. The experience is fulfilling to the volunteer, but causes problems for the community. When building schools, volunteers likely have no carpentry experience, and the money they spent on this trip could have gone to a local builder. Mentoring children can be equally disastrous. Children (especially at orphanages) who experience a revolving door of volunteers can develop serious attachment disorders.
Self-satisfying service is usually accompanied by a savior complex, an idea which is deeply rooted in American culture. We routinely intervene in other countries (militarily and through other, shadier means) with the intent of enforcing our worldview. We are taught that we live in the greatest country with the greatest ideals on earth. Naturally, this attitude extends to service, and again, to large charities. A non-profit think tank in Washington or New York does not know the needs of a community better than the community itself, but they will impose their ideas regardless.
Still, I admit that large charities have their merits. For example, disaster relief efforts need existing infrastructure to deliver aid quickly. Large charities do this well. Many large organizations are genuine in their mission, and can provide considerable resources. However, only small organizations can originate from the community. They have the most pertinent ideas, and the most stake in the success of those ideas.
In a practical sense, donating to large, well known charities is easier than searching for a small one, although I do encourage the extra research. If you choose to go the large charity route, make sure the organization is working with the community and fostering self sufficiency. Community based solutions are, and will remain, the best way to address community problems. When volunteering, consider not just the positive impact you may have on a community, but the potential negative impact as well. Good intentions don’t insure good outcomes.
Harry Zehner is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.