3 quick ways to tell if the Charity you support is going to “Change the World”

If you’re like me, you grew up wanting to change the world, make a difference, and help the less fortunate. We might not have known how to do it ourselves, but luckily, we had an inspiring, intrepid group of expert “world-changers” to turn to (and send our cash to) – the good people running Non-Profits.

Charities.  Humanitarian organizations. NGO’s of every shape and flavor. Literally hundreds and hundreds, and HUNDREDS of thousands of them.

But there’s just one problem...

They don’t change the world.


Martin Luther King Jr. got this at a gut level when he said,

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

And therein lies the problem. The beggars get fed. Day in and day out, they get fed. They get fed UP with getting fed (stale muffins and bad coffee that is).

In fact, my local soup kitchen in inner city Vancouver proudly proclaims that they have been feeding the hungry and the hurting since 1942. I don’t doubt their commitment, or their sincerity – just their ability to change the system that produces all those hungry people.

If you look carefully, you’ll see that the edifice that produces beggars rarely changes. The world doesn’t change through charity. It stays the same – producing more and more beggars who get fed more and more muffins at more and more soup kitchens. Charity doesn’t change the system – it is an essential part of the system.

Like a “moral safety valve”, Charity serves to relieve the pressure for more fundamental societal change. Charity keeps things just bearable enough so that no-one rises up in protest to demand an answer. The hungry are shuffled inside their soup kitchens and the rest of us don’t need to be bothered by their unruly behavior.

Please don’t misunderstand me, feeding hungry people is not wrong. It can be a beautiful, loving act, when done with dignity and humility.  I encourage everyone to engage personally in eating with folks on the margins. You’ll hear some raucous stories and meet some fascinating characters. But charity alone doesn’t change the world.

The reality is, 99% of Non-Profits are just not set up to challenge the edifice that produces beggars, for the simple reason that it is not in their best interests. They benefit from the system staying as it is. The money comes from the system. It pays the bills. So, don’t bite the hand that feeds you that stale muffin.

So here they are: 3 quick and dirty ways to tell whether the charity you support is likely to change the world:

1. Look at the Board of Directors.

Jump on your favorite charity’s website and have a look at the people who hold the power, the Board of Directors. Most likely you’ll see a group of people who have benefited from the status quo. Good people. Dedicated people. Kind-hearted people! But nevertheless, people who benefit from the status quo.

The Board of Directors of "Justice for African Women International". OK not really.

The Board of Directors of "Justice for African Women International".
OK not really.

Charities tend to appoint old white guys, whoops, I mean Board members, who will bring in the big bucks. And that means they are usually either privileged and affluent themselves, or are good mates with lots of privileged, affluent people.

To put it bluntly, these are the people who build and maintain the system as it is. They love the edifice because it pays their salary (or dividends or investment profits). They are NOT the kind of people who ache and long for the world to change, because they profit from the system staying just as it is. I'm not questioning their motivations, just pointing out that there is a conflict of interest.

Think about that for a minute… The people who hold the MOST power and authority to steer the work of the charities we support are the LEAST likely to want to change the system that produces poverty.

So, if you really want to support charities that change the world, look for Non-Profits that have organized themselves to give a real voice to the poor and the marginalized – including on their Board. Ask who holds the decision-making power, and why.

2. Look at whether the Charity has Charitable Status

Non-Profits are funding-centric. They are donor-driven. And donors demand tax receipts. After all, what’s the point in giving if you can’t get some benefit back? Amaright?

Greenpeace: getting arrested in silly costumes since 1971.

Greenpeace: getting arrested in silly costumes since 1971.

Now, the fact that those with money are so important to the running of a Non-Profit is cause for pause in itself. But did you know that the very act of registering with the government as a ‘Charity That can Give Tax Receipts’ legally precludes you from engaging in any significant political activity? That’s why Greenpeace is denied charitable status by so many governments. Too much rocking the rubber dinghy you naughty greenies!

Sadly, if the charity you support has charitable status, the amount of political agitation that they can engage in is severely curtailed by the government. Their protest sign waving hands are tied.

If you really want to support charities that change the world, consider foregoing your tax receipt and supporting an organization that seeks to speak truth to power, despite the financial cost. Ask what part funding plays in driving the agenda of the Charity. For further reading check out The Revolution will Not Be Funded.

3. Look at the location of their headquarters

Skim down to the bottom of the home page on most Charity websites and you’ll see the address of their headquarters. That’s where the Non-Profit bigwigs, the senior leaders, sit around cool boardroom tables and make decisions about how they’re going to change the world…or not.

Serving the poor by hobnobbing with the ultra-rich. It's a tough job but someone's gotta do it.

Serving the poor by hobnobbing with the ultra-rich. It's a tough job but someone's gotta do it.

The physical location of senior leadership and key resources says a lot about an organization’s priorities. Most Non-Profits locate their main office in North America, or Europe, because that’s where the donors are. If that’s where their work is too, then it makes sense. That’s where you can access government grants, and meet the movers and shakers who can connect you to resources. Oh, they might make plenty of trips to the developing world for photo opportunities, ahem, I mean research, to see the work for themselves. But at the end of the day, their first focus is the donors. And sooner or later donors, people with money, end up setting the agenda for the organization.

If you really want to support charities that change the world, consider giving to a small grassroots organization that is embedded amongst the people they serve. They won’t be running golf events in your city. But they will be getting dirty in the slums and rural villages where change is happening. Truly, where you stand determines what you see, and what you do.

This is just a brief glimpse at some of the ways that charities can be thwarted, despite their best intentions, from changing the world as they originally set out to do. There are lots of other things I could have mentioned and I’d love to hear your own insights and ideas in the comments section.

Acts of compassion are still needed, but if we want to change the world, it’s the system that produces poverty that has to be challenged. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.

That’s how we change the world.

Now pass me one of those stale muffins.