Catalyst, Great Stories, Leadership, Philanthropy

Does charity begin at home?

Canadian icon Craig Kielburger has done far more in his life to make a lasting difference than almost anyone, certainly much more than I have. He is a deserving Member of the Order of Canada, a mentee of the Dalai Lama, friend of world leaders and inspiration to more than I can count. His organizations, Me to We, and Free The Children are widely considered exemplary. Craig is the right person to be writing regularly in Canada’s most prestigious newspaper on issues of charity, global development, and youth activism. In his most recent article Craig sets out to address the legitimate question of whether the effort and expense involve in taking North Americans overseas on short term projects would be better invested in the very real problems in our own country and communities. It’s an issue I’ve considered quite a bit both in trips I’ve led through my past work as a church leader and in my role with Catalyst, as well as the years I spent on the board of Live Different. I think Craig’s response gets sidetracked with a less than ideal example and delves far too much into issues of politics instead of making the salient points I’m sure he has made hundreds of times in the past. Here’s what I wish he had said:

It really doesn’t matter where someone learns to care about others, or even where they choose to live out that changed heart. There are tragedies and needs everywhere. Some of us grow up in families and situations where our compassion is sparked early and we find our voice and act right where we begin. For many others it takes something quite different to ignite us. It may be sickness in a friend or family member, the example of an admired mentor or celebrity, or a jarring news report (as it was for Craig). For some, it takes a trip to a distant land where we see issues somehow more clearly through the cultural separation and it allows us to see our home reality through new eyes when we return. Ultimately, our desire is to see people with caring hearts taking action to serve others; even if it takes a $5000 trip to Africa to make it happen.
To me, the question isn’t whether it is better to take Catalyst Award winners to the Dominican Republic and Haiti rather than simply sending the money directly to charities already established in those countries. I’m well aware that local workers could build the same houses more quickly and for far less expense than flying our group across the ocean and spending on accommodation and transportation there. That critique misses the point. For both myself and (I will risk asserting) for Craig Kielburger, the purpose of our work isn’t actually to build the most houses and schools. It’s to see people become more loving, more active, and more empowered. Short term international trips that openly have that intent can be very effective when properly prepared and followed up. There are numerous weaknesses to the approach, “poverty tourism” is a real issue, and too often the experience can become just another type of vacation rather than something truly meaningful. In our case we work hard to ensure that the local people we connect with are given a priority voice in how we work, we invest significant time with our participants in the year following the trip as they try to make sense of what they’ve seen and done, and we initiate conversations about all of these issues during the trip so they are a part of the entire dialogue. Kudos to Craig Kielburger for all he has done and for being willing to be the voice of a generation and an industry. He serves us all by raising the topics we should be discussing at greater length than his articles could possibly permit.