Charity is a good thing.
But all too often, our spiritual communities mislabel their charitable works as collaboration.
For example, a church I was consulting with was telling me about how they collaborated with a church in another part of town by delivering food baskets to the church to distribute the week before Thanksgiving. My questions included:
- Whose idea was it to provide these food baskets?
- What specific partnership goal does this project address?
- Are the food baskets distributed to church members in need, or does the church distribute them to non-church members who live in the neighborhood surrounding that church?
- How are the recipients identified?
- Is there any follow-up with or ongoing support given to the recipients of the food baskets?
- Other than delivering the food baskets, how is the success of this initiative measured?
- Who determines what food is included in the baskets?
What was obvious to me, based on the responses I was given, was that this church had decided it was a good idea to help a neighborhood they had identified as “poverty-stricken” and thought making sure families had a good Thanksgiving dinner would be a positive effort.
One member found a church that had a website that listed more than a dozen active ministries and the photos on the website made it appear to be pretty large with a regular church attendance of several hundred . The church had been located in that community for more than 20 years so it seemed pretty stable.
Their next step was to call and tell the receiving church that they wanted to provide 50 food baskets and they asked, “Could you distribute these food baskets to people in need?” Of course the receiving church said yes and the relationship was born. For three years the initiating church had delivered 50 baskets to the receiving church.
But, they had no idea how the baskets were being distributed. They had asked for no input or feedback about the type of food included in the basket; they simply assumed the food they ate for Thanksgiving was what the recipients would want as well. They had not considered whether the gift certificates they provided to cover the purchase of a turkey could even be used since the store they purchased the vouchers from didn’t have a store within 15 miles of that neighborhood, and the closest store available by public transportation was at least 20 miles away and would require 3 bus transfers. They had never inquired if the baskets were being delivered to people who had access to ovens and refrigeration. They had never been on-site to participate in the distribution of the baskets and meet the people they were helping. They never had considered whether a year-round food program would be helpful. And they never asked the receiving church, “How does this fit in with your priority programs?” or “Are there other ways we might we support your priority projects or programs?”
Charity is important. And valuable. And good.
But it is not collaboration.
Collaboration means all parties have a voice. Collaboration requires sharing, negotiation, disagreement and intentional choices that reflect the agreement of people with different views, opinions or needs.
In a multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-generational world, collaboration isn’t one-sided. It’s a beautiful exchange of ideas and intentions.