Joyful Givers

CHAPTER 6: MORE THAN MECHANICS - TELLING THE STORY OF TRANSFORMATION

Philanthropists we spoke to want to understand the story of the journey out of poverty and to see social, behavioural and spiritual changes in a community, even where these are difficult to quantify.

The premise of our research interviews was that we have found something distinctive by working through local churches around the world, and that the interview was a consultative one to help us understand how best to engage philanthropic individuals in our approach to poverty reduction.

We explored with philanthropic individuals our understanding of human flourishing.

Put simply, a full life is one where people are able to exercise creativity and productivity, and to live in community with those around them. This, we believe, is the opposite of poverty, for when people leave poverty behind their journey is not only towards something material - it is towards a life which is also richer socially, intellectually and spiritually. Once we have enough money so that our financial situation ceases to cause us to panic, our fulfilment comes from other things. Money is not the answer to all our human problems, but a complete lack of it is devastating.

Without an environment which encourages people to flourish in this way, it’s easy for people to give up. If people believe that poverty is not only how life will always be and that they can’t change it (apathy), but that it is somehow their pre-ordained destiny (fatalism) they can become trapped in passivity and lose their belief in their own agency.

The answer, in our opinion, lies in restoring healthy relationships at every level. People are held back from fulfilling their own potential and from participating fully in society when relationships break down - both at a personal and a structural level. When people don’t have a healthy understanding of their own identity and capacity, they are unable to explore and fulfil their potential. When families break down, particularly in poor communities with unpredictable incomes and no safety net or infrastructure to protect them, children are vulnerable to trafficking, exploitative labour and will often miss out on school. And when citizens and governments, or employees and businesses, don’t trust each other, corruption and exploitation can flourish.

Mindset change is, of course, recognised across both faith-based and secular development sectors as crucial in poverty reduction. The concept is not unique to churches or even to faith-based organisations more broadly, but our experience suggests that their level of access both logistically and socially means churches are well placed to facilitate conversations about expectations, hopes and fears. Furthermore, our hypothesis is that churches are as effective as other organisations, and sometimes more so, in helping people understand their individual and communal potential. The church is allowed to have conversations about hard things - people’s memories, hopes, doubts and fears - and, with some support, can facilitate community-level discussions which lead to practical change based on increased confidence and resilience.

In many of the interviews, we told a story or two about people we’d met around the world who in some way exemplified the behaviour we had in mind, particularly where that behaviour had initiated their journey out of poverty.

In Rwanda, a mother of three was very excited about her new dress. ‘Look at my dress,’ she kept saying. ‘I love it.’ The dress was important to her because it reminded her how far she’d come. A few years before, she had owned very few clothes, all of which were threadbare. She hardly ever left the village because she didn’t feel presentable enough, and she worried that her children would be embarrassed by her. 

Until she joined the self-help group, where women gather regularly to save money, lend to each other for income-generating activities, pay back their loan with affordable interest rates and develop dividends schemes and welfare funds. But the Tearfund model of these groups relies on each person finding their own money to put into the kitty. We don’t supply the first injection of cash; they find it all themselves. 

So we asked her ‘If you really didn’t have any money, how did you find that first coin?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I was so desperate to join the group, I wanted it so much that I went to my neighbour and asked if I could work in her garden. That’s how I got my first coin to put into the group.’

Philanthropists agreed that the stories described the type and scale of change and can support metrics which purely indicate the level of activity. Statistics without a story are meaningless. These examples of people taking responsibility for their own future, of understanding the value of their limited resources, or of persevering when previously they might have given up, are not easily quantifiable, as we saw in chapter 5.

Many of the people we spoke to were involved in similar projects in the UK, either as a volunteer, frontline worker or as a trustee, and had stories of their own to share about the importance of attitude and behaviour change in a person’s journey out of poverty. Among a Christian sample of high net worth individuals, it’s not unusual to find high levels of volunteering or community action; recent research from New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) found that 27 per cent of UK charities are faith-based and Christians are among those most likely to volunteer in their local community.

And, particularly among Christian philanthropists, there is a very high value placed on storytelling.

A man in Uganda told us he'd been to a workshop at church a few years ago. They were very vibrant, noisy and fun days. He and his neighbours couldn't read, so the workshop was full of singing, dancing and role play. He loved it.

But he felt a bit uncomfortable because the people at church kept talking about resources and encouraging people to use what they have. He said 'Thank you for today, but I don’t think I can come back tomorrow. This workshop is for people with resources but I don't have anything.' They said to him, 'Go home this evening, look around your home, see what you have and come back tomorrow.'

He went home, looked around but saw nothing. He lived in an empty hut. Nothing.
So he went back the next day and told them, 'I don't have anything.'
They said 'Stay for the next part of the workshop, go home tonight and have another look.'
Back and forth he went. Still nothing.
He started to get quite cross and eventually he said to them 'Stop telling me to look around my home. I tell you I have nothing! All I have is a bike.'
Oh. 
So he started doing errands on his bike, and made enough money from that to put his children through school. They can now read.
His family's future is better than the past, and the only thing that changed was the way he looked at the world.

Some of the stories we told were described as being like parables (the stories told by Jesus). They not only recounted a person’s experience, but they pointed to a deeper truth about self-actualisation or collective responsibility. And, similar to Jesus’ parables, they left the listener with a question to ponder rather than an unequivocal point.

Within Christian traditions, storytelling is highly valued and a way to share experiences and learn from each other. Many church services include storytelling - through the sermon, a member of the congregation publicly retelling a recent experience, or both - and our sample were highly likely to be engaged in regular Bible reading using notes which relied on storytelling to help people understand the Scripture.

Anecdotal is not second best. It’s a mistake to think that. Stories are more powerful than statistics. Statistics are important, of course, but don’t tell you everything. Good stories are very important, particularly stories of sustainability. I want to see that people are doing it for themselves.

Retired banker, London

However, they don’t work for everyone. Some people’s familiarity with storytelling meant they found it easy to see what the story was trying to achieve and it had become formulaic.

My husband and I vary. He’s not interested in the stories at all. He says brutally ‘Who cares about Mrs Bloggs? There are a million Mrs Bloggs.’

Accountant, London

If there’s a story about Nancy in Namibia I notice that it’s there but I don’t really bother with it. I can guess what it’s going to say. Those stories are great in the church though, for people who will give into an offering for Tearfund or give smaller amounts. For me, I’m more interested in the numbers and the systems.

Investment bank auditor, London

When we explored how best to reflect the deeper value of working through local churches, in terms of challenging fatalism, overcoming passivity and enabling mindset change, there were three main ways people suggested they could better understand spiritual transformation through our reporting. By reporting, we specifically meant the proposals and progress reports which people who give at scale (more than £10,000 a year) receive to help them understand the impact of the work they are helping to fund.

1. Journey

For the most part, people didn’t expect to fund a quick-fix programme and solve a problem within a year. Progress is important, and they want to see that life is improving for people in poor communities. However, they understand that the journey out of poverty is a long slow one. While they expect to see before-and-after stories, they recognise that progress can be slow, painful and faltering, especially where poverty is exacerbated by addiction, climate change, poor governance or family breakdown.

Consistently, people told us that they wouldn’t believe us if we told them problems had disappeared overnight and that it would be counterproductive to claim that projects always met every need without a hitch. Philanthropists at this level often work in highly pressured environments and understand financial risks and unpredictability - as well as the ups and downs of community life.

And, in line with their Christian perspective which takes a longer term view than concentrating only on the present, they understand that their contribution to a situation is specific to a season. They believe that there is a story being told which spans all of history and into eternity, all around the world, and our efforts in a particular place and time are just one part of something much bigger.

Many that give to a piece of work for three to five years expect to see tangible progress, but they understand that there is a long history to each problem and that the solution will take some time. By the same token, they hope that their contribution will help to make possible a change which is sustainable and benefits future generations as well as those experiencing the assistance now. They trust that there will be benefits beyond today, which we will not see in our lifetimes.

Translating this into impact reporting, philanthropists wanted to see strong acknowledgement of the elements which are harder to quantify: perseverance when faced with a problem, improved familial and community relationships, confidence to try new things and planning for the future. Recognising that this is difficult to assess, they usually asked for a descriptor indicating levels of hope at the beginning of their funding and progress reports using consistent language - and measures where possible - throughout, so they could follow progress in these areas.

Effective examples which people referred to included case studies of communities having the intellectual and social resources to go to their local council and speak out for better health or education services; or people organising themselves into committees to plan and build a new road or pool equipment to help a number of small businesses succeed. Where the journey reflected people taking responsibility for their future and coming up with ways to make life better for their whole community, supporters could see that the impact was more than transactional: it had translated into flourishing relationships and confidence to plan for the future.

2. Beneficiary involvement

Those who have travelled with Tearfund speak particularly highly of projects which prioritise self-actualisation, both at individual and community-level. They recognise the importance of structural change in society, and the shortcomings of the public sector in many developing countries. Many supporters express admiration for approaches which help people to make thoughtful decisions and change longstanding habits which have been keeping them in poverty, especially when there is limited infrastructure and the journey out of poverty is all the harder.

This reflects two very important drivers: the Christian approach to the value and sanctity of every life; and a concern that we must reduce dependence and break some long-term cycles which have resisted previous attempts at poverty reduction.

In this vein, philanthropists particularly appreciate reporting which includes data collated by the people in the community. In a model which seeks to promote individual responsibility and collective decision-making, it seems illogical to rule out self-assessment. Involving beneficiaries in assessing their levels of prosperity and well-being is seen as a commendable first step in stimulating positive engagement.

People that give at this level are fully cognisant of the limitations of self-assessment and the difficulties in finding an effective tool to do so, but expect it to form part of a rigorous approach to monitoring and evaluation. Some talked about household surveys as a ‘least worst option’ and many mentioned the importance of having a facilitator whom the community trusted and would speak to honestly. But overall, notwithstanding education levels and cultural differences, philanthropists often believe that beneficiaries are well placed to identify local needs and make plans to address them, and this should be reflected in the way we gather data.

3. Faith

Christians we spoke to, giving to a Christian organisation working through local churches, even in communities where Christianity is a minority faith, place a high expectation on our Christian distinctive.

They expect to see this reflected in the reports they receive. At the very minimum, they expect to be invited to pray for the people in the communities they’re helping to support, and they usually expect much more than that.

At this level, philanthropists fully recognise the role of the church in reaching out to people of all faiths and agree that people should be helped on the basis of their need, not their faith. But where this assistance is being delivered by Christians and through local churches, they expect to see a positive impact for the church as well as for the individuals and families who are helped.

It is usual that when a church begins to reach out to the community with practical help, either by delivering aid, or by becoming the focal point in the community where people of all faiths gather to discuss their future and plan together for better facilities, the church will grow as a result. This often reflects a change in the church’s behaviour towards the wider community; perhaps the church had previously been seen as judgmental or existing only for the benefit of its members, and now has changed its practice to demonstrate belief in others and a desire to see the whole community flourish.

Philanthropists appreciate that people often feel more warmly about a local church when it becomes a place of comfort, refuge and practical help, and when its assistance is freely available to all who need it.

And they also appreciate reports which demonstrate values held by the church becoming more widely held in the community. For example, they often express horror at the levels of sexual violence in the communities we serve and express frustration that this would happen in a nominally Christian place.

Some people used the word ‘morality’, others ‘made in the image of God’ or ‘precious’, to express their desire to see wider behavioural change in the community demonstrating respect for self and others. They are under no illusion as to the church’s historical - in some places, current - role in implicitly or explicitly condoning domestic abuse, child marriage, marital rape. Where churches have been helped by Tearfund to review their theology, teaching and practice, supporters are encouraged by examples like those of local parishes in Rwanda seeking to be ‘rape free villages’. In such cases, churches have not only preached to, prayed with and counselled people about healthy relationships and consensual sex but have also helped sexual violence survivors to report their assault and persevere with the criminal justice process. Stories of a woman whose rapist is now in prison because the church helped her pursue prosecution, despite her not being a member of that church, work well to demonstrate the transformation happening in the church and its wider impact on the lives of people in the community.

Download the full PDF report