A friend of mine told me a story recently of how India changed his life. I thought he was going to tell me about a spiritual journey, but what I heard was dramatically different from what I expected. He told me the details I usually hear, (lots of smells, sounds, extremes between poverty and wealth, colors and insane driving), and then he spoke about the starving children who stood on the port begging for money and food.
He told me on his last day in India, he had 10,000 rupees left and wanted to do something to get rid of his money so he didn't have left over currency to exchange. He chose to buy tons of pizza for those children he had been seeing all week. He walked up to a small group of children he had been interacting with all week and handed a slice to one of them, holding the pizza box high above their heads to be able to have control over giving the slices out in a responsible way. As a side note, this person is one of the kindest and big-hearted people I know; he had every good intention and wanted to be able to do even a little to make a difference.
All of a sudden, the kids started grabbing at the pizza box, dozens and dozens of children started to come out of the woodwork and crowded around him begging, crawling on each other, starving and ravaging for food. They started scratching him, attacking him and each other and these little children who were so hungry, so in need became "animals" fighting over anything they could grab. My friend found a way out, and sat in his room and cried, completely changed by the experience, vowing to never ever complain about anything again. I was blown away by this story. Here is a good person trying to do good and yet the complete opposite occurred when doing so.
After he told me this, I was blown away and we discussed that this is seemingly a perfect example of when people go into communities assuming they know what works and doesn't work. This is the problem that occurs when people who are strangers think they know what's best and don't analyze systems, structures and the people in the community, and when people don't include the community in progress and change.
A lot of people want to give back, and I believe those who are in the nonprofit space are some of the most highly engaged individuals creating change in the world; but I also believe giving back is not looking at others as "charity cases." Giving without empowering and educating those people you are working with is as dangerous as it is "good." If you look up the word charity, it actually means "a gift of public benevolent purposes." While many have misinterpreted this to be a monetary "gift" I believe every human being has a gift to the give to the world, and if you really want to make a difference in the world, you have to see the power of potential and help create systems and structures through education that help everyone find their gift.
I asked my friend if I could write about him and he said absolutely; I have single-handedly watched this man help so many people, believe in so many people and support so many people through his kindness and hard-working, resilient nature, and since learning from this experience I believe he sees the world differently. A piece of pizza is a Band-aid, a quick fix, which can turn into an ugly mess. While it may be harder to believe in people's potential, and work towards creating long-term systems that teach them how to make their own pizza instead of handing over a bunch of slices, I believe the return on the investment will be worth it.