Stop helping. How you can make a bigger impact in community development

The world needs more passionate, giving, global minded people. But when it comes to community development, your volunteer trip, mission, or donation is likely not going as far as it could.

A trusted friend and former colleague of a missions organization recently told me of a conversation she had with a Youth Director about his summer missions trip. The group was from Arkansas, and serving on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, one of the most devastating areas of poverty in the United States.

The group of 75 volunteers paid a grand total of $45,000 for their week-long mission trip, or $600 a person. The youth director was surprised, however, to discover that the organization’s construction budget for work projects for their week was $6,500, coming in at under 14% of the total trip budget.

The facts…

This 14%, or $6,500, was spent on construction materials. Bricks, wood, cement, paint etc. purchased from the nearest big city (Rapid City in this case). The volunteer lodging was donated by a local school. The food budget was spent at Costco, also in Rapid City, two hours away. Vans were rented in the volunteer’s home-town for transportation. The rest of the $45,000 not spent on food, transportation, and the 14% on construction materials, was inherently spent on summer staffing (although most staff raised their own support), overall organization staffing and expenses, and other program materials for the organization, such as tools, band equipment, gas/vehicles etc.

Now, I am not one to criticize nonprofits simply for the “demonic label of overhead” as Dan Pallotta calls it in my favorite Ted Talk titled “The way we think about charity is dead wrong.” In order to make true impact, nonprofits need to scale and the percentage of overhead does not relate to the scale of impact. However, 14% of a $45,000 trip actually reaching the community that is the purpose of a mission is a tough stat to swallow.

This is the reason “community development” initiatives like this fail. The only resources put into the Pine Ridge local economy were construction materials. Even in the form of a house, this has no potential for secondary spending as would income, nor does a home in Pine Ridge accrue significant value over time or generate more wealth.

Not a single local job was created or even marginally supported in the community they were looking to help.  With no locals employed, no local food/agriculture purchased, no money spent on local lodging, and without creating and supporting local industry, you can’t expect to see a change in the long-term poverty level.

The sum of $45,000 went from the cause of helping Pine Ridge, to dissolving in a sea of organizational good intentions.

Having spent multiple summers in the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, I am beginning to understand the difficulties facing Native American communities. Having worked in aid projects across the Americas, I understand there will always be a necessity in providing for the basic needs of suffering people.

But, if you will, imagine a different scenario.

Imagine if that $45,000, or at least say 50% as opposed to 14% of it, was put directly in the hands of community members; not just in the form of wood and brick, or even a handout, but in the form of income and meaningful work.

At Onwards we do just that through tourism. We funnel as many of your dollars as possible directly into local tourism-based businesses that we have helped to develop and invested in long term. Stay in their BnBs; eat in local restaurants; enjoy conversing with local guides and learning about their culture; support their people, families, and communities, by supporting their economy.

Onwards may not be the answer to every problem, but we believe we are a better solution to many. We challenge you to ask yourself how much impact your dollars could have before you spend them, especially when it comes to community development.

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