I know a woman who has seen a UFO. An Unfinished Foreign Objective.
In a rural area of the Democratic Republic of Congo a well-intentioned, faith-based nonprofit built a health clinic. They trained one nurse and one assistant to help fill the desperate medical needs in the small community.
When my friend visited this UFO, she saw the nurse sitting alone in the building, discouraged, and living on payments made only in food, as no villager could afford to pay any medical fees. The clinic’s single bed had no mattress. There was no medicine in the cabinets, and no sign of the founding nonprofit organization.
As Christians, we are called to invest in the great work of furthering the Kingdom of God. We invest time, talents, energy, and money into projects, people, needs, and organizations we believe are doing “Kingdom work”—work that brings us closer to the way we were designed to live. When Kingdom work is done, people are given dignity, widows are protected, orphans are cared for, the needs of the poor are met, minds are educated, and souls know the love of Christ.
In an increasingly globalized world, we are more aware than ever of the needs of others around the world and of the efforts being made to address these needs. Consequently, our ability to invest monetarily in Kingdom work around the world has increased drastically. While this is a tremendous opportunity for Christians, it raises some important questions about where we should invest our money. There are over 150 million registered nonprofit organizations in the United States alone. How can we discern where quality Kingdom work is being accomplished? How do we avoid investing in UFOs?
It is not enough to assume that the good intentions of a nonprofit are adequate—even a Christian nonprofit, as seen in the abandoned health clinic. In a complex world, the good a nonprofit organization intends to do can be outweighed by unforeseen problems its intervention unintentionally causes.
Nonprofits can easily drop health clinics, wells, and schools into a needy community, only to find after they leave that the wells can’t be properly maintained, the health clinics cannot be adequately staffed or stocked, and the schools are empty or devoid of quality education. (Books like When Helping Hurts, Toxic Charity, and Poor Economics deal with this problem in depth).
It is not that the need was not there, or that the solution was not a logical one. Rather, the solution was not steeped in relationship, research, community empowerment, and sustainability.
I propose that as Christians devoted to furthering Kingdom work, we need to be especially careful to invest our money in nonprofit organizations doing the following 3 things:
- Sustainability. All work should be done with a long term view, and be expected to stand the test of time. People should be empowered to maintain the work on their own over time, and to take ownership of any resources or programs that are implemented.
- Empowering Relationships. Helping should not disable. Nonprofit organizations should be doing work with the community and not for the community. Kingdom work should give dignity. This perspective helps to avoid becoming the outside “savior” that cannot be replaced.
- Intentional Practice backed by research and steeped in reflection. Kingdom work in an impoverished area will not start without research that looks for the assets of the community and individuals, what people say about their needs, and what has worked in other communities. No Kingdom work will continue without ongoing reflection—asking what is working and what is not, how the community is being affected, and if best practices are being followed.
I have the privilege of serving on the board of a nonprofit organization, Giving Back To Africa (givingbacktoafrica.org), that I believe is living out the kind of Kingdom work I have described above. Giving Back To Africa works within an existing school in a slum outside of Kinshasa, the capital city of The Democratic Republic of Congo. “Their innovative education program addresses real life issues children face every day through structured, supportive, and collaborative problem solving activities. Children learn five leadership skills that help to solve direct issues in their community, which will, over time, help them act in positive ways on their own behalf as well as on behalf of the community in which they live.”*
The relevance of GBA’s work to this discussion is not the innovative education curriculum being developed (as amazing as it is), but rather the way the work is done. The work is led by an on-the-ground Congolese program manager and implemented by Congolese teachers. An experienced team of educators in the States meets regularly via Skype with the program manager to develop the curriculum through a painstaking process of intentional collaborative research, development and reflection.
By beginning with building trust in the community and developing empowering relationships, GBA has been able to invest in an existing school, allowing children to define the assets as well as the needs in their community and then bring solutions to these problems to their community in the form of servant leadership. GBA thrives on its willingness to go slowly so that the work is done well in a sustainable, intentional, and empowering way.
The results are encouraging. Teachers are being empowered to teach creatively, to come alongside their students, and to carry their skills back to their homes. Children are seeing themselves as catalysts of positive social change and as community members with voices and capabilities. The community is changing as well. The work and the results are dignifying, sustainable, and Congolese led. Were GBA to disappear, the work that has been done would not be lost or negated.
Organizations that embrace the principles of sustainability, intentionality, and relationship are doing work that changes individual lives and entire communities. They don’t fly in and then disappear, leaving behind UFOs. The model of long-term, community led nonprofit work is the kind Christians can be confident about investing in.
*Description of GBA taken from copyright written for the GBA website by Anna Hartwick. Editing done by Jaclyn Reiswig