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“Please help me….” a report from the GiveDirectly inbox

About a year ago, I took on the job of answering phone calls and responding to the messages that come to GiveDirectly’s email inbox. At the time, I had no idea what to expect, but I was happy to be involved with this “crazy new idea” of giving cash directly to the poor. It looked like great opportunity to help in a small way and to spread the word about evidence-based philanthropy.

As it turns out, answering GiveDirectly’s correspondence has been an education in itself, as well as an inspiring and emotional experience for me. Every day I get to interact with a wide variety of amazing people whose stories range from heartwarming to heartbreaking. I would like to share a few highlights from GiveDirectly’s inbox.

First, there are the messages from donors. Among the donors who write in, there is a spirit that goes beyond generosity; it is a spirit of duty and responsibility toward those who are less fortunate. Every day we get notes from donors who want to thank GiveDirectly just for providing a way to give their cash to strangers in need. Occasionally, we receive an apology message from a longtime supporter who has fallen on hard times and needs to lower or cancel a monthly recurring donation—these examples of selflessness fortify my faith in the general goodness of people.

Some of our donors have found creative ways to integrate direct giving into their lives. One woman gave in her father’s memory, to celebrate his lifelong connection to a community in Africa. Others give as a way of teaching their children. Couples have asked their friends and family for donations to GiveDirectly in lieu of traditional wedding gifts. One young woman used her bat mitzvah as a platform for fundraising and teaching her friends about GiveDirectly. Benefit parties have been thrown; a man bicycled across Australia to raise money and awareness of extreme poverty. Owners of small businesses, from a boutique to a bed and breakfast, have donated parts of their earnings to GiveDirectly. Recently we heard from a woman whose co-worker had pledged HALF of his annual salary to GiveDirectly—it is sometimes overwhelming to think of all the small and large ways that our donors share their good fortune, and how profoundly their choices can impact the lives of struggling families whom they will never meet.

Then, there are the messages from skeptics. Our donors are vigilant and keep us on our toes (“there appears to be a typographical error on page 10 of your annual report…”) and come up with creative solutions (“you don’t have a flyer for kids, so I created one…”). We also get messages questioning our recipients’ ability to spend wisely without our guidance, asking why GiveDirectly is not operating in developed countries, or suggesting that GiveDirectly website should be more flashy. We welcome these messages and respond with research and clear explanations of our operating model. Though everyone is not always happy with the answers we give them, I am proud to work for an organization that is transparent enough to reply directly to all of the questions that come our way.

Finally, there are the requests for money. These come from all over the world and are the most difficult messages to read and answer, because we cannot help. Most of the requests are for relatively small amounts of money—and in many cases a relatively small amount could radically improve the requester’s situation. Though it is hard to say no, it also is a reminder of how meaningful a cash transfer can be to those whom GiveDirectly IS able to reach.

Before it became my job to respond to these requests for cash, I had not thought much about how very serious they are. In conversations with friends and family in the US about GiveDirectly, someone invariably laughs and says, “You give away money? How can I sign up?” This seems kind of amusing until you are on the phone with a desperate person who has swallowed his pride and is asking for money to feed his family, treat a sick child, or keep a roof over his head. Whenever I hear someone question whether the poor will “become dependent” or “take advantage” of GiveDirectly’s cash transfer programs, I wish that they could speak to one of the people who reach out to us asking for help. No one would choose to be in that position.

My year in the GiveDirectly inbox has been a crash course in the strange mixture of inspiration and despair that surrounds any effort to tackle the huge problem of global poverty. Though it is disheartening at times to know that there are so many people in need whom we cannot help, it is profoundly encouraging that GiveDirectly is building a community of supporters who take joy in giving and do not despair in spite of the enormity of the challenge before them.