NPO Coffee: “Doing charity work for yourself or for others?”

On May 6th, LIN hosted an NPO Morning Coffee on the topic of Charity versus Development in helping society’s most vulnerable people. Our two guest speakers were Ms. Nguyễn Thị Bích Tâm, Independent Consultant on Organizational Capacity Development and Mr. Lê Quang Bình, Chairman of iSEE and the People’s Participation Working Group (PPWG).

Individuals: “Doing charity work for yourself or for others?”

Ms. Tâm spoke about two personal situations:

The first situation took place a couple of months ago. An ophthalmologist friend came to her so shocked by a medical case that she herself had to go and see a clinical psychologist. Her patient was brutally tortured and rendered blind by some thugs who were exploiting local street children to extort money using burning cigarettes. “She burst into tears when examining that child,” Ms. Tam recalled. “It is easy for us to give money to this cause, isn’t it?” But would that address the root cause of this issue?.

The second incident happened as Ms. Tâm was eating at a local food stall in Hà Giang. One of the staff from a local organization asked “What are you doing up here?” After discovering that Ms. Tâm worked in the not-for-profit sector, the individual commented: “Those ethnic minorities are so arrogant. In the past, people have donated clothes to support them, but they didn’t care at all.”

Ms. Tâm responded: “If you understand ethnic minorities, you may know that the H’Mông have their own method of making clothes by using linen because of its thick but still breathable features. Moreover, did you know that many minority groups also believe that when someone passes away, he/she must only wear clothes completely made of linen?”

“Why do we give things to people without asking the intended receivers whether they want them or not; do we have the right to force people to appreciate what we give away only after we are done with those items ourselves?”

Mr. Bình shared his thoughts about the fishermen in central Vietnam after reports of the recent, mass fish deaths. If we do not find out the cause of those fish deaths, the crisis can escalate rapidly. But, meanwhile, we are also trying to take efforts to aid the affected population. The question is: Do we focus on only helping the fish farmers that were directly affected or do we concentrate on searching for the underlying cause of the crisis in order to prevent future catastrophes?

“For me, that is a story about development. What can we do besides giving out aid to affected parties? How can we solve these situations, such as the mass fish deaths, which caused the fishermen to lose their economic security so quickly?”

According to Ms. Tâm, helping people in urgent situations such as health crises or natural disasters is common in Vietnam. However, one must also consider daily situations that can result in dependence. “The other day, on arrival to Sapa, I felt horrible seeing children running around me, asking for money,” she said, adding “For these children, it has gradually become the norm to beg for money when they see tourists. Do we really want to provide support in that way?”

Mr. Bình suggested the following three, essential factors that all nonprofit professionals must observe:

  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes to understand their problems. Otherwise one may inadvertently impose one’s own perspective on another person’s life.
  • Everyone has the ability to make their own decisions, so allow them to do so. If we impose our own decision-making, they may become totally dependent on us later.
  • Money can’t solve everything, particularly in cultural, spiritual fields. One has to know who he is helping profoundly, multi-dimensionally.
For Non-profit organizations: “Never receive all what we are given”

From the perspective of a nonprofit organization, a representative of the Thảo Đàn organization shared a difficult situation. It was the July full moon when a businessman offered to donate tons of rice. The team at Thao Dan had different opinions on the matter. Some didn’t want their organization to be known for receiving “give-away” items that someone else does not want. But others argued that we should accept the gift as it was intended as an act of kindness.

As another example, Mr. Bình shared that several environmental organizations refuse to receive funding from mining companies because they see these companies as causing harm to the environment, which conflict’s with the values and objectives pursued by the NPO.

So, there are cases when we may not want to accept what we are given. What we do depends on many factors such as the origin of the support, whether receipt of the gift can cause any harmful outcomes with regards to reputation in the community or team spirit in the organization. Decisions must be made based on the values each organization is pursuing.

Mr. Phạm Trường Sơn, Director of NPO Services at the LIN Center asked: “What values should NPOs, or individuals, choose to represent their charitable work?”.

Binh’s response to that question was: “Equality is the best. Take the clothes donation from Ms. Tam as an example. The act of giving away clothes should be accompanied by efforts to help the people protect their culture. Ethnic minorities may be willing to wear our modern clothes to protect themselves in the cold weather, but this may also cause their cultures to fade away. If we understand these issues, we may discover other ways to help them keep warm in their own clothes instead of giving them ‘our clothes’. These stories ultimately lead to the conclusion that understanding all aspects of what we are doing and the long-term implications is important.”

Ms. Tâm added: “We unconsciously assume that beneficiaries from our projects will appreciate us, although the money spent on them is not ours but comes from sponsors.” Eventually, we can create a situation where our beneficiaries become totally dependent on us and will just wait for our next support. Meanwhile, can our organizations resist this ‘temptation of power’, step back and give the beneficiaries the ability to make their own decisions?

Without free choice, we are not treating our beneficiaries as equals, their dignity is partly broken. When we accept this situation our dignity is partly broken too.”

At the conclusion of the session, Mr. Binh introduced the Freedom-Equality-Dignity triangle and suggested that nonprofit professionals ask themselves these questions:

  • Do we perform our work with equality? Or do we look down on our beneficiaries?
  • Do we impose our thoughts and ideas onto our beneficiaries?
  • Is the dignity of our beneficiaries impaired because of our help to them?

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