I was training a group in Toronto. All of them were on their way overseas to go work in countries where poverty is the norm. They all want to help the poor. The question is what helps? That’s when I surprised them with a strange social experiment.
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, I thought the responses were surprising!
Everyone said that it was easy to give money to people who looked poorer than them. People simply 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 changed 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.
It was when people tried to give money to the rich that things got really interesting. 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.
What does it mean to help the poor?
Giving money is an exceptionally powerful act. When we give money to help the poor 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.
If we continue to find immediate gratification by giving to an person who can thank us. We will continue to reinforce the power structure that poverty requires. Don’t believe me? Do one of two things:
Just 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
So what should you do with that $2 in your pocket the next time you want to help the poor? You may just try giving it to a person in a BMW. This kind of giving will change your perception of 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.