09 February 2010 ~ 1 Comment

Changing Attitudes and Actions: Takes more than Giving Things

Maryann Fernandez of Philanthropy Indaba invited me to be a guest blogger on her site this week, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to share some more thoughts on “giving things”. You can see the post can see on the Philanthropy Indaba blog, and I have copied it below as well. Please comment if you want to share other ideas or stories as I know that both Maryann and I are looking to learn more from others in the field and to get more examples which explain the potential impacts of “giving things”.


We get stuck too much on the idea of giving “things” to save the world. People need education? Build them a school! People are getting malaria? Give them a mosquito net! There was a devastating earthquake in Haiti. Send them shoes!

The problem is, THINGS don’t make improvements in our world. PEOPLE do. Schools don’t teach kids. Teachers do. Water pumps don’t provide clean water to people. People treating the water and transporting and storing it hygienically do. THINGS don’t change lives. So why do we keep talking about giving things as the main solution to the world’s problems?

When it comes to emergencies, it’s different. Right now, the short term needs in Haiti revolve around basic needs and access to things like medical equipment, food, clothing, and shelter, (all ranking above shoes!). When we get outside of emergency situations we are often looking to make changes in human actions and need to stop looking to things for a solution.

For example, we look to bednets to solve a malaria problem. We try to rush to get more bednets to more people to solve a problem that isn’t just about things. In many places in the world, malaria-carrying mosquitoes feed at sunset. Most people are not spending the time right at sunset in their beds. Besides that, it isn’t about getting the bednets into people’s hands; the solution is educating people about malaria—ways to prevent it (including bednets), how to treat it. In places where malaria is very prevalent, putting dollars which might have gone to bednet distribution into educating people about the early signs of malaria, connecting people to local or free hospitals, and providing education about the most useful forms of treatment might save more lives and also create a market demand for bednets.  Besides, giving things away can sometimes destroy the development of market-based solutions to product distribution.

One organization I have come across that really understands that educating people is the key to putting technologies to work is the team at Resource Development International Cambodia (RDIC). They make a rope pump which iss made entirely from locally sourced materials including rope and PV tubes. It fits on top of a traditional open well and sells for about $250. Though much cheaper than the deep tube wells installed by many NGOs, the price is still cost prohibitive for most families, so RDIC has a two year repayment plan. At RDIC, they recognize that the core changes they are looking to see don’t have to do with things as, in this case, they are looking to see reductions in the number of people with water born illnesses. With 24 repayment days where an RDIC employee collects the payments, they have a chance to teach 24 lessons to ensure that they reach their goals of improving health. Lessons have to do with in-home water filtration, how to fix and maintain the new rope pump, home dug toilet solutions, hygienic food preparation, and more. They not only have 100% repayment on their rope pumps, but they are making changes in attitudes and actions surrounding health issues.

After learning these lessons in Cambodia, when I give money to an organization, I look for one where the methodology involves community education over a cookie-cutter solution focusing on giving things away.

I want to leave you with some tools to think about when donating money. When choosing where to give my money, I would look for NGOs where:

  • The website seems less focused on the quantitative numbers (10,000 libraries in 50 countries) and more on the methods of how they will build capacity in the local community to create these changes themselves.
  • When asked, NGO workers are willing to discuss past failures and current improvements. I would ask “What things are you doing today that you weren’t doing a year ago, and which things have you stopped due to lessons you have learned from your successes and failures?”
  • The focus is on putting “things” and ideas to use, not just distribution. If there is a physical item being donated or sold, what are the plans for education and support around repairs, usage ideas, and markets for further local-led distribution.

Daniela believes that changing attitudes and actions requires an investment of time in people, and that education is the key to the changes she wants to see in the world. Daniela is the director of PEPY, an educational development organization working in rural Cambodia. PEPY focuses on building the capacity of teachers and communities to increase access to quality education. PEPY is funded in part through PEPY Tours, and edu-venture tour company offering cycling trips and service learning experiences in South East Asia. You can connect with Daniela on her blog, Lessons I Learned, or in real life in her office in Siem Reap, Cambodia.