Princes and Paupers

If there's anything the new job in the nonprofit world has taught me, it's this: People who have money really, really don't like to live near people who don't.

The agency I work for has been around for quite some time, serving poor people and homeless people on the south side of St. Louis....and I mean really poor. Supporting this agency for so long has been a solid group of churches related to the denomination with which the agency is affiliated. What baffles me, however, is the churches who give the most, and who generate active volunteers for every aspect of the agency, are nowhere near the agency at all.

This fact has led me to many a conversation--tense and otherwise--with members of my own congregation about why they choose to live where they live. I don't want to perpetuate the overly hyped divide between city and county here. That has gotten way too much play with young people in St. Louis (and now in the media) for me to aid in that silly argument. I frame my frustration around those who claim to wish there to be change, but then do nothing about it.

It is increasingly easy to write a check or click a mouse, mail it off, and brush off one's hands under the guise of having done good. It is quite another to actually move into the neighborhood with the problems, work in that neighborhood, spend money in that neighborhood, meet people in the neighborhood, and build a life. A pretty cool friend of mine spoke in public recently on this very topic. Click here and listen to his November 21st talk.

The economic discrepancies are staggering. Over a quarter of St. Louis city residents live below the poverty line. Yet the suburbs keep going further and further west. A colleague of mine told me that it is a normal cultural action to roll up your windows and lock your doors when crossing Lindbergh Blvd.

This morning, the New York Times published an article on a company known as Charity Navigator, who analyzes administrative costs and fundraising expenses for nonprofit charities for potential donors who wish to be more well-informed before they decide to whom to give their money. The company is changing their analysis practices over criticism over the simplicity of their criteria. A noble effort, to be sure.

However, there was an unspoken undercurrent here that is bigger than giving to charity. Charity Navigator makes it easy for donors to do no investigation of their own on the organizations to which they give. Why actually go down the organization, get involved on the board, meet some clients, change things, when one can be told that the organization is fine and upstanding, and click "donate" with a clean conscience?

Most of the people who donate money, volunteer, or work for our agency are white, and live in Webster, Kirkwood, or further west than that. Now, there are some wonderful people who live in these places. But wouldn't it be so much more impactful to buy a pre-existing house in the city? To start a business in the city? To meet and befriend people in the city? To build a relationship with the city that you claim to love and live in, even though you live in Chesterfield?


  1. Two thoughts:

    1. I am a big fan of Charity Navigator, but hadn't thought of their role as you describe it until now. It's interesting... they may be enabling individuals to NOT commit time to an organization, while making it easier to donate money. Interesting tradeoff.

    I still think the positives of Charity Navigator outweigh the negatives, but am glad you provided your thoughts for me to consider.

    2. I think you answered the question: "...wouldn't it be so much more impactful..." above with your observation on the success of the cartoon character-child abuse profile pic stuff on Facebook.

    As Marjorie noted (and you know, of course), there is a difference between awareness and action. It's funny, in an odd way, of course, that getting people to take action-- any action-- may be one of the more difficult things in life.

    Great post. Enjoy your take.


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