Making the Most of Charity Work: Why Charities Should Focus on the People Before the Solution
Charitable organizations are united by their desire to improve the world. However, the top-down targeting, distribution and tracking methods of traditional charities have caused some donors to question their effectiveness and wonder how much of their money makes it to those in need.
Traditional charities, such as Catholic Relief Services, the American Red Cross, and the American Cancer Society, have embraced a top-down strategy for years. They rely on trustees, board members, and managers far away from the communities the organization is helping to decide where donors funds are used.
These charities have come under fire in recent years. They’re often too far away from the people they’re trying to help to really understand what recipients need. Many times, they develop a solution to a problem before understanding who it is they’re trying to help. This leaves them out of touch with locals and unable to adjust course.
Instead, more and more organizations — and their donors — are looking toward bottom-up models that put recipients first. This grassroots approach provides new ways to increase engagement and autonomy where programs are rolled out.
So which model is right for the modern charity landscape? That’s a complicated question, but there are stellar examples of charities around the world embracing elements of both bottom-up and top-down philosophies to help people.
Defining charitable operation models: what’s the difference?
Modern charities often struggle with sticking to a top-down structure or adopting a bottom-up, social justice philanthropy strategy. While there’s certainly a battle between these two terms on paper, the reality is that many charities today blur this line to take the best from both worlds.
So what are the differences between top-down and bottom-up charity programs?
Top-down charity models rely on trustees and board members to identify goals, pull together campaigns, and decide on a service or product that will be donated. These leadership bodies then rally funds behind this campaign, allocating money to buy things like sheep, water filters, or school supplies, which are then sent to recipients.
Unlike their larger peers, bottom-up charity programs leave the bulk of the decision-making to the recipients themselves. These programs are often smaller, but they work to gather funds from interested donors before sending money to people who need help most. Recipients then have some discretion to determine how the funds are used.
These models each have their pros and cons. Top-down approaches are better regulated and can handle greater funding. Bottom-up approaches work more closely with recipients to find ways to get the most mileage out of small donation pools.
Why hierarchical charities have survived so long but fail today
Traditional charity models have been around for a long time. In fact, top-down charitable giving got its start in the 19th century. It arose from a paternalistic world view: that the richest among us are the best qualified to help the poor everywhere.
Organizations like the American Red Cross and the American Cancer Society require uniform operations controlled by leadership groups. Without set policies, procedures, and priorities, they would not be able to carry out thousands of relief and charity efforts worldwide each year.
However, over the last decade, faith in traditional charities has faltered.
Power is not distributed evenly among charity staff, volunteers, and recipients. Often, this results in a failure to address the challenges of the people being helped because decisions are being made outside of the communities in need.
Because of this, these organizations have been criticized as being too distant and assumptive about what can actually help people in need.
How bottom-up charities create lasting impact globally
In 2011, the Nigerian government decided to invest in its people from the bottom. To do so, it gave 1,200 Nigerians about $50,000 each to create, run, or scale a business. Over the course of three years, this program created hundreds of new companies and 7,000 new jobs, leading to economic growth.
The Nigerian government obviously isn’t a grassroots charity. But their experiment in wealth distribution is a strong case study for bottom-up philanthropic models. By investing directly in community members — instead of sending funds to new government programs or agencies — the government empowered longer-lasting change.
Instead of looking at charity as a means to swoop in and fix problems, bottom-up organizations look at philanthropy as an engagement opportunity.
This line of thinking emphasizes collaboration among community members and close relationships between donors, partners, volunteers, and recipients. The demand for bottom-up, engagement-driven charity is based on the understanding that the best way to empower people is to include them in their own promotion.
In some cases, merging top-down and bottom-up tactics can take the best of both worlds and avoid the downfalls of each.
How today’s charities balance impact and fiscal responsibility
It’s hard to keep donors happy and books balanced and make a true, lasting impact on those struggling in the world. There’s certainly no shortage of opinions about how to do it.
But as more traditional, top-down agencies take a look at engagement-centered strategies, the charity landscape is shifting to one that puts the resources in the hands of the people themselves, not just volunteers. This movement has also spurred the creation of a number of new charities around the world that are building from the ground up.
- Skill vs. will
- Growth vs. engagement
- Design vs. delivery
- Controlling vs. letting go
- Engagement vs. the rest
Considering skill versus will requires charities to decide if their goal is to give people tools (top-down) or empower them to take action (bottom-up). The middle ground of this is to provide tools as well as on-the-ground education to ensure knowledge spreads after charities leave.
Deciding between growth versus engagement is particularly hard. Mission-driven charities aim to scale smoothly and quickly, but without an understanding of how to engage recipients once the program accesses them, the charitable effort is shallow.
Design versus delivery is one of the key differences between top-down and bottom-up charity work. In top-down organizations, design happens early on without the review or buy-in of recipients. This leaves charities unsure of whether there’s traction behind their solution until its too late. By contrast, focusing on delivery — that is, involving the community early on in the solution-finding process — ensures that efforts aren’t wasted and recipients are included.
The key to empowering a community to better its members’ lives is to let go and trust the people. This means understanding where your charity should control outreach and programming, and when it’s best to leave it to the people on the ground.
Charities looking to make a switch to a bottom-up model and new organizations starting from the grassroots level should identify ways to weave engagement into all metrics. By looking at all elements of success through the lens of how it helps engage and empower more people, organizations ensure that they’re walking the talk of philanthropy.
Today, the lines between top-down and bottom-up organizations have begun to blur as charities work to marry the best of both worlds. Here are three categories of charitable work that incorporate bottom-up, people-first approaches to empower recipients directly:
1. Giving circles
Of all the bottom-up charity models, giving circles are the most grassroots and least top-down in structure. Typically, these groups start with community members wanting to help each other, not with a formal organization looking to help others. In many cases, these groups evolve into official charities but start small and altruistically.
These groups combine funds and volunteer time to support local organizations or causes. This provides education and engagement opportunities for volunteers and recipients alike. Volunteers and organizers share responsibility for everything from admin work to grant-making to event management.
This democratic approach comes with challenges — such as finding people with administrative and grant-writing experience — but has been successful on a number of scales and at a number of locations.
The Washington Womenade, based in Washington, D.C., started as an effort to raise money for local women’s issues by holding potlucks. To date, the organization has used funds to provide
- dentures and medical supplies to the homeless
- payments for utility bills
- furniture and security deposits for those in subsidized housing
- groceries for families in need
- metro cards for those without transportation
- internet access for halfway-house residents
None of the organization’s funds are used to pay for overhead. Womenade continues to scale by supporting new circles and potlucks throughout their area.
While Washington Womenade operates on a local scale, Dining for Women operates on a global one.
The organization’s mission is to eradicate poverty for women and girls in developing nations. They do this through education, engagement, and collective giving.
To date, there are 400 chapters across the United States. These groups host monthly dinners and pool the funds members would have otherwise spent on a meal out to donate to worthy causes around the world. Between 2003 and 2014, the group raised more than $4.1 million for gender equity efforts.
Also on a global scale, The Funding Network operates a network of giving circles across Europe and North America. Like Dining for Women and Washington Womenade, the network holds live funding events to support projects.
Before each event, the selection committee chooses three to five projects the funds will support. Then, members pledge funds at the network’s events in a fast-paced session held like an auction.
So far, the network has raised more than £12 million since its start in 2002. These funds are used to support grassroots nonprofits, particularly those in the food, environmental, and youth empowerment industries.
2. Direct empowerment through funding
One of the best ways to empower families and individuals in developing countries is through direct funding. Not only does this provide relief for people struggling to afford basic necessities, but it boosts the local economy and supports community members outside of the program recipients.
Charities that embrace direct funding mechanisms typically include both bottom-up and top-down approaches. The organizations decide what region or communities to target, but leave the actual application of funds up to the recipients themselves. These nonprofits, like GiveCrypto, do the legwork of raising the money and then provide a set amount of funds — often alongside business or skills training — to community members.
One such charity is the BOMA Project. The organization has built their Rural Entrepreneur Access Project (REAP) to help women overcome extreme poverty by funding business education.
The project selects recipients with predetermined criteria and then provides a seed capital grant of $200, with an additional performance grant of $100 given later. Recipients work with mentors to build their businesses. These mentors teach women
- supply and demand principles
- borrowing and lending
- planning for expenses
- how to sustain the business after the program ends
After the seed round, three women are identified per group, and mentors work with them to launch their business on a wider scale. To date, the charity has enrolled 26,614 women, launched 9,038 businesses, and established 1,162 savings groups.
Shared Interest works in a similar way but on a wider scale. The organization focuses on providing loans and credit facilities to support fair-trade farming businesses across the world.
Shared Interest works with a network of 11,500 investors globally to allocate a £41 million pool to business owners in disadvantaged communities. To date, this money has been used to impact 470,000 people in more than 60 countries at almost 400 fair trade organizations.
These loans ensure that farmers are paid on time for their crops by empowering fair trade co-ops to pre-finance orders from overseas buyers. This takes pressure off farmers to find funding through friends and family in order to provide for their community.
Finally, the Grameen Foundation focuses on providing technological education to women in poor rural communities. Their focus is to help women:
- access financial and health marketplaces
- provide peer support
- make sustainable tools available to families in poverty
To date, the foundation has supported more than 23 million people, empowered 470,000 poor farmers in Africa and Latin America, educated more than 5 million about health services, and organized more than $20.3 million in pro bono services.
3. Education organizations
The third category of charities focus on skill-building in poor and disenfranchised communities. These organizations combine top-down and bottom-up models. Unlike their funding-focused peers, charities may provide products such as solar systems and water-sanitation technology. However, their goal isn’t to gift and run. Instead, they take a blade from the grassroots book and focus on empowering recipients with new skills to support the goals defined by the community.
GSMA is one of the largest efforts by an industry working to educate those in developing countries about mobile technology. The organization represents worldwide mobile operators, including
- handset and device makers
- equipment providers
- software/internet companies
Through their #CaseForChange campaign, the organization works with network partners to bring mobile infrastructure to impoverished communities. Once there, partners educate locals on how to use cell phones, internet technology, and other systems to connect the people with outside resources.
From 2015–17, operators in the network invested $50 billion in mobile infrastructure and education in South America. They supported 300 million mobile connections in 2017.
This has not only helped people in developing countries connect with the global community, but boosted economic growth. A Deloitte study reported that an increase in 10% of mobile penetration in a country can grow that areas gross domestic product (GDP) by up to 1.2%.
On the educator side, the Literacy Design Collaborative works to educate teachers to create high-quality curriculums and better student support in American schools.
They do this by promoting a national community of teachers to empower teachers nationwide to establish a uniform instruction plan for all students. What began as a teacher collaborative has spread to all 50 states and a wide network of states, districts, partner organizations, schools and teachers.
Eighty-four percent of the collaborative’s teachers reported that the organization helped them increase writing assignment standards, 92% reported better literacy skills in science and social studies, and 90% agreed that coaches helped them better plan meetings and lessons.
Also focused on youths, Sawa World works to train unemployed or vulnerable youth as reporters. They provide these children a living wage, and, in turn, these new journalists go into their community and identify poverty solutions.
Reporters then work to put these solutions in place and create film, radio, and print packages about the progress. These stories are shared on radio and TV.
In the last five years, the organization has reached more than 400,00 people in 11 of the world’s poorest countries and spurred the start of 9,345 local solutions. They aim to impact 1 billion youth by 2030.
Using crypto to fuel progress from the bottom up
GiveCrypto firmly believes that people want do good and can do the most good in their own community.
Based on this principle, we’ve dedicated ourselves to supporting local engagement by directly distributing crypto to recipients and giving them autonomy. While we are based in the United States, our mission is to empower ambassadors and recipients to take charge of how funds are used.
To learn more about our work, please visit our blog and follow on Twitter for project updates.