March 5th, 2010

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reported on well-intentioned programs that do more harm than good  (“Doing Bad by Doing Good”).

It recounted tales of projects gone wrong – unfinished toilets in Peru, stilettos and winter coats sent to post-tsunami Indonesia and waterless urinals in Chicago’s City Hall.

We see some of the same issues in Alabama – we have huge hearts, and those of us lucky enough to have extra time, energy and/or money to give want to use those resources to improve the quality of life for those in need.  And sometimes, despite the best of intentions, we see the Alabama equivalent of unfinished toilets that end up as a safety hazard.  And then it doesn’t matter if your heart is in the right place.

So what can you do?

Kent Keith, the CEO, Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, a nonprofit organization that trains and advises groups and individuals on practical and ethical ways of helping others says that “before you help people, you have to ask them, ‘What do you need? What do you want?’”

Beyond Good Intentions, an organization focused on educating about more innovative and effective approaches to service, recommends the following approaches:

  • Throw away your assumptions about what you think people need.
  • Ask recipients what they think might work.
  • Focus on ideas that may be more effective than the obvious project.
  • Be willing to be anonymous.

I often say that isn’t about fixing problems or doing things for communities in need. It is about workingwith communities.

What have you done to develop reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationships with the communities you serve?  Please tell us – we need to hear about these successes.

Posted by Kristina Scott