How collaboration can help the materially poor

Every poverty alleviation effort – whether it comes from a local church, a parachurch ministry, or a secular nonprofit – includes three groups of stakeholders: donors, the ministry employees (and long-term volunteers), and the materially poor people the initiative hopes to serve.

These stakeholders typically have very different educational, professional, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds that can make it difficult for them to even understand each other, much less collaborate. And to make matters worse, these stakeholders have often internalized very different stories of change that they may not be aware of. Satan loves to exploit these differences, sowing seeds of distrust within the household of faith and undermining the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.

So, how can we better practice kingdom community as we work toward poverty alleviation? Clearly, the challenges are enormous. In addition to being quite different from one another, donors, ministries, and materially poor people often live thousands of miles apart. It sure doesn’t feel like much of a community, and sadly, it often doesn’t function like one. But there are ways we can consider for improvising together, starting with repentance.

One mantra in the nonprofit world is that donors should “pay, pray, and get out of the way.” This horrendous attitude reflects the common perspective that staff are the ones with all the expertise and that donors have nothing to contribute besides their money. Further, it fails to recognize that donors are stewarding God’s resources and need information to be able to steward it well. Finally, it reduces mind-affections-will-body-relational creatures to “human ATMs.” This doesn’t demonstrate love to donors, and it is an affront to their Creator.

Donors need what all of us need: to use their entire beings. They too want to become whole. For some donors, this involves more than writing checks, and they often have non-financial gifts to offer their King. In particular, many donors know a lot about running organizations, which is generally not the strength of most non-profit ministries. I can attest from personal experience that if God had not brought a number of businesspeople into our lives, the Chalmers Center would probably no longer exist! In addition to giving money, these brothers and sisters have brought leadership, strategic insight, wise counsel, managerial know-how, spiritual mentoring, and deep friendship.

New practices for ministries

It’s time for ministries to stop stiff-arming donors: hiding information, talking about successes but not failures, being closed to advice, avoiding penetrating questions. The list could go on. And ministries need to adopt practices that treat donors like complete human beings who are full partners in advancing Christ’s kingdom. Here are a few suggested practices for ministries:

  • Stop using the term donors. It reinforces both the human-ATM concept and a giver-receiver dynamic. Consider using alternative terms such as ministry partners or financial resource partners.
  • Be completely transparent in all communications. Financial resource partners are stewarding God’s money – which is a holy activity – and they need information to be able to steward it well.
  • Be humble enough to learn from your financial resource partners. Ask them questions. Seek their advice. They know things you don’t know.
  • Look for non-financial gifts in your financial resource partners, and give them an opportunity to use those gifts where appropriate.
  • Include some financial resource partners on the ministry board. They are stakeholders in the ministry and often are exceptionally gifted at governance.
  • Try to remember that your ministry is only one of thousands of ministries that God is using to advance his kingdom. Those other ministries are not your competitors; they too are members of the new-creation community and are part of your family. So, if God has called a financial resource partner to use their gifts to be involved in X and your ministry does Y, help them connect with a ministry that does X.
  • Have the courage to love financial resource partners as whole people. Pray for them, share personal weaknesses with them, and fearlessly speak hard truths into their lives as you would for any brother or sister.

Ministries must treat materially poor people as partners in kingdom advancement too

Part of the reason this sounds strange to us is we have been deformed by the teachings of Western Naturalism and Evangelical Gnosticism, both of which elevate material gifts over spiritual and relational ones. It’s easy to see what financial resource partners bring to the table, but what do the sickly, the homeless, the disabled, or the addicted bring? With a little help, they can bring a ton. In our work, we’ve seen God use the “foolish,” the “weak,” the “lowly” and the “despised” to advance his kingdom in powerful ways (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).

Poverty alleviation is about unlocking these hidden treasures, this gold mine of non-financial resources, in joint service to our King! Here are a few guidelines to help these relationships flourish:

  • Stop referring to people who are materially poor with terms like program “beneficiaries.” Consider alternative language like participants, friends, or partners. Of course, if they are believers, brothers and sisters works too.
  • Look for ways to include the program participants in the design, execution, and evaluation of the ministry. And depending on their gifts and readiness, give them opportunities to serve as volunteers, staff, and even board members. Remember, the participants are joint stakeholders in the ministry, not beneficiaries.
  • Ensure all the stakeholders are contributing something to the poverty alleviation initiative. Often, financially well-resourced churches partner with churches and ministries that have fewer financial resources. All the partners need to have “skin in the game,” including the materially poor participants in the ministry, for all the stakeholders have gifts they are called to steward.

Practices for financial resource partners

Of course, while financial resource partners bring many gifts, they have their own limitations and imperfections as well. The fact that somebody knows how to make money selling widgets in Omaha doesn’t mean they know how to solve poverty in Zambia. As mind-affections-will-body-relational creatures, materially poor people simply aren’t wired like widgets, so they don’t respond in the same way. Financial resource partners need to recognize that their expertise in one sector doesn’t necessarily translate to the poverty alleviation space.

Similarly, knowing how to run a business doesn’t mean one knows everything about running a non-profit ministry. A non-profit is a very different sort of animal from a business in terms of culture, staff, incentives, revenue streams, and metrics. Financial resource partners need to be sensitive to these differences and humble enough to listen and learn.

Finally, financial resource partners need to avoid the tendency to see money as the answer to every problem, a tendency that is rooted in the erroneous stories of change of Western Naturalism and Evangelical Gnosticism. Because poverty is rooted in broken relationships that ultimately only Jesus Christ can heal, money simply cannot solve poverty. Yes, money is an extremely important resource for covering the costs of the ministry, but money is not the only resource needed in the fight against poverty. Both ministry staff and materially poor participants have gifts to bring to the table, gifts that are every bit as important –if not more –than the financial gifts. Moreover, some of the stakeholders, especially the materially poor participants, are taking far greater risks than the financial resource partners are. The contributions and sacrifices of all the partners need to be appreciated.

Here are a few suggested practices for financial resource partners:

  • Remember that you are stewarding God’s money. It’s all his.
  • Regularly communicate to staff and to materially poor people that they are your partners in ministry who are stewarding gifts that are absolutely essential and that you do not have. Tell them that their gifts, sacrifices, and risks are at least as important as yours, and show them that you really mean it by words and deeds that honor their contributions.
  • Respect the time of your ministry partners. They are extremely busy serving both materially poor people and you.
  • Don’t ask to do things that you are not particularly gifted at doing. You are probably not the best person to be doing frontline training of materially poor people in Burkina Faso. God’s people in Burkina can do this better than you can. But ministries will have a hard time saying “no” to you. Be humble enough to know where you are gifted, and where you are not.
  • Be a humble learner. Ask the staff and materially poor people questions to better understand their worlds, and ask them for suggested readings so you can learn more. They know things you don’t know.
  • Be transparent and clear in your communications. Too often, ministries are kept guessing: What does the financial resource partner like? What don’t they like? Are they planning to give? If so, how much? When? Financial resource partners necessarily must be somewhat guarded to protect themselves from the never-ending avalanche of funding requests. But as trust is developed over time with their ministry partners, the lines of communication should become more open as well. It is extremely helpful for the ministry’s planning if it knows what the financial resource partner is planning to contribute and when.
  • Do whatever you can to stop the “dating” process. Ministries often feel like they need to “wine and dine” financial resource partners, trying to guess when it is appropriate to “pop the question.” Financial resource partners can exacerbate the problem, “stringing ministries along” by not being clear in their intentions or by making it difficult to be asked for money. All this wastes enormous amounts of kingdom time, energy, and resources. Financial resource partners should treat ministries like what they are: joint stewards of God’s resources.

Let’s all bring our gifts to our King and move forward together.

This material was adapted from A Field Guide to Becoming Whole: Principles for Poverty Alleviation Ministries, by Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic. It was published at and is shared here with permission.

Photo: iStock

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