I was training a group in Toronto. All of them were on their way overseas to go work in countries where poverty is a daily reality in many people’s lives. They all expected to get involved in projects to help the poor. That’s when I surprised them with a strange task.
Giving money to people who don’t need it
I asked the group to do a crazy social experiment where they were to give away a toonie at a time to three unique people. They were not allowed to explain why, they simply had to give $2 to three separate people. To make it interesting they had to:
Give $2 to a person who is obviously economically poorer than you
Give $2 to a person who looks like they are at about the same economic level as you
Give $2 to a person who is obviously economically wealthier than you
Laughing a bit nervously, they fanned out across the city and bravely attempted. Later when we debriefed the experience I asked them how it went. They told me they found out why most of our attempts to help the poor – don’t!
Everyone said that it was easy to give money to help the poor if the person looked poor.
People gave to pan-handlers who were already asking for money. When they gave the $2, the people who received looked them in the eye and said thank-you or God Bless. It was a pretty natural exchange.
The gift felt good and kind.
The story was strange when people tried to give money to people at the same economic level.
People who were offered the money were guarded and surprised. The donors raised a few eyebrows. They were asked ”What is this for?” and “Why are you giving me this?”. The general response was perplexed wonder and confusion. Recipients laughed and gave the givers a double-take, shaking their heads at the craziness of the situation.
The gift felt odd and out of place.
It was when people tried to give money to the rich that people got mad.
Flashes of irritation crossed people’s faces. Responses were quick and snappy, “No thanks” and “I don’t want this”. People walked away in a hurry, trying to avoid the giver. In most cases it was almost impossible to give $2 to a rich person.
The gift was an insult – a slap in the face.
So how should we help the poor?
Giving money is an exceptionally powerful act. When we give money we are setting up a powerful relationship. Money is power. And the act of giving money conveys power to the giver. This relationship with money affects us in deep ways:
– the giver is benevolent, the receiver should be grateful.
– the giver is kind, the receiver is needy
– the giver is good, the receiver should learn from them
Giving $2 to a homeless person reminds us that we are noble. We are re affirmed and thanked. When we disrupt this story (by giving money to the non-poor) we create tension. It breaks down this story.
This is a good thing.
Poverty needs you in power.
Poverty is as much about the impressions we have of one another as it is about hard work. Our interactions between rich and poor set up concrete barriers between us that are hard to break.
If we give, and then find immediate gratification from a person who can thank us, we will reinforce poverty between people.
Don’t believe me? Maybe try to change your own ingrained bias. Do one of two things:
Go and try to give some money away to a rich person yourself.
Or sit on the corner and beg for money for 30 minutes
Help understand how we see the poor
So what should you do with that $2 in your pocket the next time you want to give? You may just try giving it to a person in a BMW.
This kind of giving will give you a different perception. You see how money affects you as a giver just as much as it does the receiver.
Until we change how we give, we won’t be able to understand how others need to receive.
Never believe that your $2 doesn’t make a difference. It makes a powerful difference in people’s lives.
Did this post intrigue you? How do you like to help the poor? Share in the comments below.