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The Dark Side of Giving

Photo by Katie Kather

For as long as I can remember, I have had a philanthropic worldview. Growing up in the church, I have been afforded many opportunities to give.

And give.

And give.

As a Christian, I pride myself on caring deeply for those in need. Jesus said “whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.” And I did. Oh, how I did. But Helping the needy and giving out of a place of love can become dangerous if done blindly.

Recently I have started to wonder when the giving ends. I’ve come to believe at some point, endless giving destroys any chance of empowerment. Isn’t empowerment where real change begins?

Sometimes I think we want, if not consciously, to keep others in society down so that we can be the hero. What other reason do we have to keep giving instead of finding real solutions?

I did not work as a freshman in college.  My dad wanted me to be able to focus on school the first year, so he gave me a monthly allowance of $50. This was enough for me since the only thing I needed to spend money on were outings to Starbucks and Chili’s. As many college students do, I drove a 1989 Buick with an unreliable battery. Of course,when I discovered my car wouldn’t start, I immediately called my dad. He promptly sent me $50 – thank you very much. As he was four hours away and I was completely unsupervised, I promptly spent the money on a sweater that I could not live without. Plagued with guilt, I called him crying – admitting what I had done. He sent me more money.  Do you know why? Because he loved me and cared about my plight. Unfortunately, his loving actions delayed my development and kept me dependent on him for far too long.

Isn’t this what we do to the people we love in less developed nations? Consider TOM’s shoes. For years I was a victim of their good intentions and clever marketing. I felt I was such a good person for buying TOM’s rather than other shoes, because when you buy a pair they give a pair to children in developing nations. I was doing so much good and being hopelessly trendy in the process. A socially conscious friend alerted me to the dangers of giving.

Unfortunately, endless giving denies people the basic right of dignity and the chance to empower themselves. Many communities that receive donations such as TOM’s have local businesses — businesses that sell affordable shoes and clothing. Why would somebody buy a pair of shoes when they could take one for free from a well- meaning American? Multiply this scenario by hundreds of pairs of shoes –suddenly local shoe stores in Africa close and the cycle of poverty continues. Every time a consumer buys a pair of TOM’s shoes and a pair gets sent overseas, a local merchant comes one step closer to going out of business.

The answer may not be donations, well meaning as they may be. There is no simple answer, but nonprofit organizations that build their structure around the idea of empowering people and communities are a good start.

In the end, good intentions often debilitate  local businesses and profit a U.S. corporation. I believe that TOM’s shoes was probably started out of good intentions and a few simple changes can take them from a giving model to an empowerment model.

Enter microfinance, a long-term solution to poverty.  The basic idea of microfinance is that an organization provides a loan to a person in a developing country, tools and training on a skill.  Rather than giving money, you can give someone the chance to learn how to stand on their own feet. No amount of money can provide that kind of empowerment and dignity. No amount of money can effect that much change in a community.

Giving is good. The dark side of giving is that, depending on what we give, we have the opportunity to hinder development or empower communities.

Click on the links below to learn more about TOM’s, giving and Microfinance.






  1. This was a very thought-provoking piece. Nicely done. I like the Heifer International organization as it is giving that also empowers. By giving someone in a third world country a sustainable source of food and income you allow them to ultimately become independent and help themselves. I also like Habitat for Humanity because the recipients are required to put sweat equity into their home–it is not just given to them.

  2. A great organization that my family has been involved with for a few years is http://www.kiva.org. They provide loans worldwide to empower people and their communities. Check it out!