Photo Credit: Problemkind via Compfight cc

Only have $2 to help the poor? This might be the best way

Posted on Posted in community development, poverty, STM, sustainability

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.

Photo Credit: Problemkind via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Problemkind via Compfight cc
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!

The Poor
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 Same
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.
The Rich
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.

$2 per day per person, is the average of the national poverty lines for all developing countries.

Never believe that your $2 doesn’t make a difference. It makes a powerful difference in people’s lives.

Did this post intrigue you? If so, tell me why in the comments below.

Mark Crocker

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Mark Crocker

I am a traveller and a teacher who understands that sustainability is a set of tools, not just an attitude. I designed a process for volunteers to succeed overseas at STM Leader. I want to change how the world works and I have helped tens of thousands of others to do the same.

I am available to speak a compelling message at your event, train your team in fresh ways or move your leadership skills to the next level. Click Here to contact me.

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12 thoughts on “Only have $2 to help the poor? This might be the best way

  1. This post intrigued me because it was a huge paradigm shift in ones perception of giving and how one should think before they give and how they give and to whom. Thanks again Mark great stuff as always!

  2. thanks muchly for your comments Central, Dean and Fernando! The reaction of the participants in the experiment meant so much more than any amount of teaching I do on poverty and sustainability. Plus the awkward experiment was so much fun!

  3. In the framework of a workshop at the International People’s College in Denmark a few years ago, the audience (some 25 professionals of different age and origin) was asked to take part into an exercise: break down into small groups of three people, receive one object – randomly selected by the trainers from a storage box in the basement – and roam for half a day around the 50 thousand-people town to engage into a barter chain, i.e. find someone with whom to exchange such object against something of his/her choice, and then someone else interested in exchanging the object received, and so on, taking notes about the barter series.
    It has been an enlightening experience. Not only has it helped breaking the distance that approaching someone unknown impulses into each of us: it has proved that what is valuable to someone might have a different value to someone else, or various other someone elses. It has granted relative vision about the immutability of values (I may need NOW something you have, which I might have not thought of or needed before). And last but not least, it has imposed invaluable reflections on the relationships between money and objects, as well as the arbitrary criteria upon which they are associated.
    Perhaps holding in your hands something that can be given in exchange of something else makes it easier. Money is dirty. Money stinks. Money is associated with innumerable degrading attitudes, plus it has extremely strong social connotations, many of which we are unaware about, and the 2$ experience proves it. But it is still valuable, and what is worse, we seem to think that it measures somehow our own value.
    Giving is an act implying various levels of the human sphere. The barter experience had left to all the participants the sensation that some sort of “step forward” had been taken: all approached people ended up laughing and appreciating the exercise, even after a first moment of puzzled, doubtful or reluctant availability, and good memories of that weird, funny, rewarding half a day seemed to have remained with both the givers and the receivers.
    To me, it has taught to pay more attention to the values that we are being inculcated through subliminal ways.
    Thanks for waking my memory of the experience with your experiment and brilliant conclusions.

  4. Great idea Mark. I am tempted to use it with my first year undergraduates on the International Development course I teach here at Northampton Uni in the UK but would would find parting with over £250 a challenge for a poor lecturer. Instead, and taking note of Daniela’s interesting approach, I will split the 75 students into three groups and ask each group to provide £3, one for each person they approach. If each member of the group leads on one occasion (poor, equal and rich), they should all experience the challenge of approaching a stranger in town. Will the amount involved (£1 is very roughly equivalent to $2) make any difference? We can then all discuss experiences when they have completed the task and I have your comments as a lead in.

    1. Glad that this exercise works for you Kevin. I also didn’t actually provide the money myself. I had small teams of about 6 go out and they had to find the money themselves.

      When I made the exercise, I felt that the key to the amount was something that an average person would make some effort to get if they dropped it in an awkward spot. I agree that a quid and a toonie should be about the same.

      Love to hear any follow up/comments from the class if you ever found a moment to do so

  5. Interesting. We also see that things that are free have less perceived value eg charging families for a mosquito net means they take better care of them; or simply the way we value ‘free’ services (often public) in our homes or environments. And those decisions are of course about power.

    I wonder how/if this connects. Could it suggest that the economically poorer might place *less* value on a small donation than the rich, perhaps themselves open only to an ‘exchange’ and uncomfortable without it?

    1. Thanks Joanna. Julio, a friend from Honduras told me something interesting about free as well. He said that if you charge something, it means people can choose which one they like best (he was selling coconut trees for reforestation).

      That choice is great for ownership, but it was also great for the development agency – it forced them to make sure that the plants were high quality. Otherwise no one would choose them and they would have to eat the costs themselves. What he taught me was that choice allows for mutual accountability on both sides.

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