Sustainability is the biggest catchword in the nonprofit sector today. Some believe it and live it. Some do no more than add it to their messaging jargon. Whether based in Detroit or Guatemala, any nonprofit with efficient programs supporting long-term learning, progress, and teaching promoting and enhancing the future potential of their clients employs a true, sustainable mission.
The fact I mention such diverse geographies as Detroit and Guatemala is not by accident. It’s where I’ve planted my charitable flag for decades. The Detroit area because it’s where I live and have raised my children, and Guatemala because it’s become a second home for my life and charitable interests. But I want to not just focus on the sustainability of the charitable targets I’ve engaged in, but the sustainability of the giving itself.
I recoil at the constant barrage of the elite and famous who hold a press conference every time they write a check. I wasn’t brought up that way and struggle even as I write this story. I don’t like talking about my charitable efforts, I’d rather just do it. I feel God has deeply blessed my life and giving back is what’s expected of me. My business partner, Nicole, likes to challenge that I need to promote the things I do to get on the radar of others who may appreciate how I spend my free time and money. Inbound Lead Solutions is first and foremost a marketing company, so I get it. We’d tell our clients the same thing. But for me, if the giving itself isn’t sustainable, it’s a waste of time and will never benefit anyone other than the person sending out the press release.
Writing a check is good. Nonprofits love and appreciate them, especially if they’re large. But most big checks are “one-offs,” and after the press release you rarely see another dime. That’s not sustainability, that’s ego-driven or guilt giving. I’m not a psychologist so I can’t tell you what goes on in the minds of those who give once and disappear. I tell development directors of nonprofits all the time to focus more on the person who writes a check for $100 every year and shows up to your events than the person who wrote the $20,000 check, felt good, and disappeared.
So let me discuss what sustainable giving means to me. In 1994 I met Amny Aguilar Yoc, a 12-year-old I was introduced to in Panajachel, Guatemala, with the child sponsorship organization Compassion International. The organization was looking for help with her schooling, an expensive undertaking for a Mayan with little resources. Ultimately I helped her through school and medical bills, and because I love the people of Guatemala, have kept in contact with her through the years, and have been able to help her own children attend school. I’ve made a sustainable investment in Amny (her name was supposed to be ‘Amy’ but she got stuck with a typo that occurred in a Guatemala hospital) and her family. My reward? Their smiles and hugs and talk of their plans just weeks ago during my visit. I saw the fruit of my giving, admittedly something not everyone can witness, and it continually leaves a real imprint on my heart.
I know a lot of people who sign up to “sponsor” a child in a third-world country, put the photo on their refrigerator and tell people they’re “helping” a child, and feel good about it. Then most stop the monthly payments after a year and move on, and the kid comes off the fridge. This is an example of something NOT sustainable. I’ve sponsored 10 kids over the years through Compassion and have met all but one personally (yes, you can arrange this) and have developed relationships with all of them. I’ve also invested in the most sustainable thing you can ever give to a child—education– my prime focus.
On my last trip to Guatemala, some friends told me about Dave and Deborah Reichard in Santiago, a small and troubled community across Lake Atitlan from Panajachel, which was a core battle ground of the Guatemalan civil war in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Dave is from Philly and Deborah is from Wisconsin and they run an orphanage called Manos de Compassion for about 50 kids on a couple of hundred acres about five kilometers from the Santiago boat dock. Nearly 90% of the children, ages 4-21, have been sexually abused (an epidemic in Guatemala and a story for another blog) and they feed, educate, and house these children who are predominantly given to them by the Guatemalan courts after they’ve been extricated from their abusive families. The Reichards are keenly aware that teaching these kids agriculture, raising livestock, and mechanical skills as well as the lessons they have in their daily school are the keys to changing their lives.
Most people in Guatemala don’t want to adopt children over the age of three or four, and Dave and Deborah are aware they will be members of their homemade society for a very long time. Many of the kids who “age out” end up being hired to work at the orphanage. Because they focus on the classroom, life and trade skills, they are a sustainable organization that I feel comfortable investing my time and money in.
Speaking of sustainable, I volunteered this month to help some middle school children here at home (Troy, MI) learn how to go through a job interview, and they shared their goals, dreams, and portfolios with me. In turn I helped them understand what employers are looking for. They were impressive to say the least. One of them I’m actually going to hire to help with our coding and graphic design. It was an honor for me to be asked to help.
I’ve also worked for the last six years in supporting Jason McCrimmon’s Ice Dreams in Detroit, an organization that presents itself as a hockey outlet for inner-city children but is really a sustainable education and life skills teaching, nonprofit organization.
So, as uncomfortable as I am to share these things, I do it because I want to encourage you to be involved in sustainable giving. I’ve built relationships and seen real change in young peoples’ lives, and it is so fulfilling. These life-long experiences and friendships have gone much deeper than just writing a check. They truly have benefited me personally more than anything I could ever give. It doesn’t have to cost you a cent… but could cost you a part of your life.. Just give a little of your time and heart. It’s more than these organizations could ever ask for.
Mark Gilman is the President of Pitchnoise, a division of Inbound Lead Solutions in Troy, MI.