The gift of giving anonymously

Today I was catching up on email and came across a fascinating Daily Good post about a couple that has chosen to give, anonymously, $52 per week for 52 weeks. While their giving is anonymous, they post each week about their donation and why they chose that particular recipient.

When I read about their project, it instantly brought back memories for me. When I had moved to Serbia some years ago to work on a community development project that often took me to small communities, I had ended my long-standing giving to Canadian charities. It used to come regularly out of my bank account each month, and I had been doing it for almost 15 years, in some cases.

Now, in Serbia, I was seeing so many needs, as well as the ways people were working hard to meet their own needs. I also saw that in so many cases, the problem was a lack of a small amount of money. Our project was not set up to meet those small individual needs – but it occurred to me that I could do something about some of them, at any rate. The project paid me a pretty good salary – not as high as the other internationals, I discovered later on, but considerably more than it paid to local staff.

I also had learned that Serbians had long seen ‘giving back’ to their communities as an obligation; successful people over the years have built rural wells, university buildings, even bridges. I saw how many local people were manifesting their concern for more vulnerable people – children, the blind, the deaf, the poor – in tangible ways. I had learned that when I went to visit people in their homes, I should bring coffee and sugar; that was what Serbians did, so the household wasn’t embarrassed by being unable to provide the traditional hospitality of a cup of coffee.

It occurred to me that I could emulate their generosity. I talked with our project’s logistics officer, with whom I regularly travelled great distances by car each week. I explained to him that in Canada, I had always contributed regularly to community causes and to various NGOs, and I wanted to do something similar in Serbia. But I also wanted to do it anonymously, for a variety of reasons. I asked if he would help me, and that was the start of a partnership. Sometimes I saw things I wanted to help with, sometimes he learned about needs and brought them to me. I would give him the money (from my personal funds), and he would arrange the purchase or the donation.

Over several years, we helped with a range of activities. Several times we bought televisions or video players for schools. We bought toys for a kindergarten. We  helped with personal needs for people who could not get help anywhere else. We watched, and where we saw we could help, we did. As far as I know, no one ever knew where these gifts had come from. Apart from emulating that Serbian tradition of giving back to their community when they did well, this anonymous giving helped ease my frustration about all the things our project could not address.

Empowerment – tapping into local generosity

I wish I had known earlier about the power of tapping into this generosity. One day several women came to visit me in the office. They had met me months earlier at a meeting held at a local NGO. They wanted me to come and visit the collective centre where they lived as refugees. I accepted their invitation but I also had to make sure they understood that our project was not designed as a humanitarian project. They said yes, they knew that, but they just wanted me to come and visit.

So I did, taking along with me as interpreter one of our local staff members. I remember that visit as if it was yesterday. At the end, the ladies invited me for coffee. Serbian hospitality always involves coffee. So I said, yes, thank you, that would be nice. The ladies brought in a silver tray, with a crocheted white lining, and two cups of coffee – one for me and one for my companion. They watched us drink the coffee – and it was hard to do, knowing that none of them had any coffee to drink. (After that, we made sure we brought coffee when we came to visit.)

I had been trying hard to avoid making any promises in case I couldn’t deliver. But as I was drinking the coffee, I asked what they needed. The list was heart-breaking. A clean carpet for the children to play on. Cleaning supplies to clean the one tiny toilet. Some candies for the children. Some school bags for the children to carry their books to school.

On the way back, Kaja said to me, “we must do something.” I agreed. She talked to other people in the office and soon they had organized people and organizations to make contributions. They had tapped into the impressive power of local action. I offered to pay for the school bags which a local merchant offered to provide at a deeply discounted price, but primarily, this was not about giving money. It was about people sharing with others, whether it was apples, shoes, quilts, or whatever they were able to share.

(For my part, I asked my friends if they would help me organize a picnic for the children in nature. I had learned that the children had never been outside the collective centre or their school since they came to town. My friends agreed, happily. So I gave the money for food, and they did the cooking and the supervising and the lifeguarding. I took pictures and got two sets of prints made so I could give a book of them to the mothers. Pictures are one of the things you lose when you have to flee your home.)

I was so happy that the local staff, and my friends, had organized activities themselves to help the people at the collective centre. It demonstrated empowerment in action. Not everyone ‘got’ it – one local manager chose to be critical of the others for getting involved in something that wasn’t “our project”. It reminded me that explaining and recognizing the essence of social change and of empowerment – the real reason why we do these ‘projects’ – is not always so easy to do.

A footnote. My contract was ended rather unpleasantly, a result of the rather nasty politics that often seems to occur in such projects. But my team arranged a nice party for me, and asked who I might like to invite. I wanted to invite the two ladies from the collective centre but I didn’t want them to feel obliged to bring anything (although of course, they did – a lovely handmade rug) and I worried they might not feel comfortable at a party. Little did I know! They told me that since they had come to the collective centre, they had never been invited to attend a social occasion where they could get dressed up, and they thanked me for inviting them. I was humbled by their generosity.

Whatever kind of work we are doing, wherever we are, it is fundamentally about relationships. Money or goods come and go; relationships, once built, last for a long time. We give and take within relationships, not separate from them. And, as I learned in Serbia, we invariably receive far more than we ever give – in understanding, in friendship, and in creating change.