When Helping People, The Simplest Ideas Are The Best

During the past few years, I have frequently contemplated the issue of charitable giving. Every time there is a disaster of major proportion, we are called upon to donate. I listened to these pleas following 9/11 and the tsunami. Of late, the earthquake in China, the Myanmar cyclone, and the flooding along the Mississippi have prompted organizations like the American Red Cross to redouble their efforts to raise money. Regularly, I am subject to appeals from non-profit organizations that solicit money for a plethora of causes: Jerry Lewis browbeats me on behalf of children suffering from Muscular Dystrophy, the Fraternal Order of Police demands that I purchase their light bulbs, and National Public Radio subjects me to a full day of on-air begging twice per year.

Because I rarely donate to any of these organizations, I sometimes worry that I do not do enough to help others. I wonder if I am selfish or less generous than I should be. My problem, however, is that I have a healthy suspicion of charitable organizations. Although I believe that most charities start out with noble intentions, I also believe that over time, many sink into a complex administrative mire where money and information is hoarded by individuals who are interested only in protecting their proverbial piece of the charitable pie. When a charity reaches this stage its efficacy is severely hindered because efforts are directed toward justifying its existence, rather than its original mandate of helping people.

Of late I have been reading about a new breed of charitable organization that seeks to avoid the pitfalls typical of charities. One of these was conceived by Brian Mullaney when he was traveling as a board member with Operation Smile, a charity that performs cleft-repair surgery on poor children around the world. Because the organization flew in doctors and surgical equipment from the United States, it could only help 150 of the 500-600 children who showed up in each location, hoping to receive the surgery. Mullaney proposed that, instead of spending millions of dollars to fly doctors and equipment around the world, the money be used to train and equip local doctors to perform cleft surgery year-round. Operation Smile’s leadership wasn’t interested in Mullaney’s idea, so he and a few others left the organization and started Smile Train.

Since the inception of this simple idea, Smile Train has performed more than 280,000 cleft surgeries in 74 of the world’s poorest countries, raising some $84 million last year while employing a worldwide staff of just 30 people. Mullaney estimates that Smile Train is close to reaching a historic break-even point: it will perform more operations each year than the number of children born each year in developing countries with cleft deformities.

An even simpler idea has been implemented in Zambia. In this south African nation, one of the world’s highest incidences of HIV/AIDS has killed more than 900,000 people and orphaned 1.2 million children. This epidemic is preventable and treatable, however the remoteness of villages and lack of transportation isolates patients from health care. World Bicycle Relief, a charitable organization founded by SRAM Corporation and Trek Bicycle, is attacking the problem by distributing 23,000 bicycles to community home-based care volunteers, as well as training and equipping more than 400 bicycle mechanics in the field. These bicycles more than quadruple the volunteers’ ability to reach those in need, allowing them to travel greater distances more quickly and with less fatigue, while carrying significantly more supplies. This results in better and more frequent health care and education for more people at a lower cost.

Yet another problem was solved with a simple idea. Until recently, fishermen in Kerala, India, randomly decided which port to sail into at the end of the day in order to sell their catch. If too many fishermen chose the same destination, that port would be stuck with more fish than could be sold, while other ports ran short. Tapan Parikh, of the University of Washington, came up with the idea of equipping the fishermen with cell phones so they could call the ports at the end of each day to determine where the fish were most needed and where they could get the best price for their catch. The fishermen became more productive, markets became more efficient, and the Keralan economy as a whole got stronger.

Fascinating though these simple efforts may be, the most intriguing idea of all may be the microfinance trend. Muhammad Yunus is the founder of the best-known microfinance institution, the Grameen Bank. In 1974, Yunnus began making small loans to the poor, without requiring collateral and relying only on the borrowers’ promise to repay the loan. His first loan was for $27 to 42 families to start a business, and even now, many of the loans are for $10 or $20. Grameen Bank has 2100 branches across India and by the beginning of 2005, it had loaned over $4.7 billion dollars, 97% of which was loaned to women. Grameen’s track record has also been notable, with very high payback rates; over 98 percent. The bank claims that more than half of its borrowers in Bangladesh (close to 50 million) have risen out of acute poverty thanks to their loan. In 2006, Yunnus and the Grameen bank were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to create economic and social development from below.”

So, perhaps I am on to something after all. I do not donate to the big institutional charities. Instead, I devote my efforts to helping people one-on-one, wherever and whenever possible. I keep it simple, and if the new trends in the charity industry are any indication, simple is eminently better.

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