“People do not value what they receive for free,” I’ve heard people say.
Really? I know it’s conventional wisdom, but is it really true? FCS got out of the give-away business years ago, but I’m not sure this was the reason, or at least the primary reason. We became concerned about the unexpected consequences that our one-way giving was producing – loss of dignity, unhealthy dependency, and erosion of work ethic. These effects were certainly reason enough to terminate our free handouts. But the most troubling issue was that our early methods of sharing hindered the development of trusting relationships. It was not so much that recipients didn’t value our freebies; they expressed appreciation and kept coming back for more. The deeper problem was that it kept us from forming authentic peer relationships. One-way giving undermined community.
Need-based relationships generally do not end well. Control issues arise. The one in control of the resources ends up in control of the relationship. The Golden Rule takes on a different meaning: he that has the gold makes the rules. When power is retained by the dispensers of charity, class distinctions are created and community is compromised.
“Parity is the higher form of charity,” another says.
Parity: on a par with, equivalence, in the game, peers. It happens when we need each other. Like the relationship between merchant and customer. The merchant needs sales; the customer needs products. They meet at the bargaining table, each bringing something of value. When the deal is done well, they both depart with their needs met and their dignity intact.
In the for-profit world, such exchange is fairly straightforward. Both participants must gain something of value or the business doesn’t last long. It’s different with non-profits. A charity can survive, even prosper, giving away goods and services so long as it collects enough tax-deductible donations to cover operating costs. Therein lies the problem. Nonprofits need donors more than they need paying customers. The people they serve provide the stories that motivate donors to give. Charities tend to make money off the poor rather than with the poor. Thus, parity seldom develops.
But interesting changes happen when recipients of charity become customers. I saw it happen in a homeless shelter. The director decided to take the risk of charging a small fee for their soup kitchen lunches. They had always been free so some resistance was expected. Some of the volunteers objected; they didn’t want to give up the good feeling of providing “unconditional love.” A few of the recipients protested and stopped coming. But the meal was hot and filling so most agreed to the modest charge. Those with no cash could pay with in-kind labor (serving food, washing dishes, mopping the floors, and such).
It didn’t take long before these “paying customers” began to voice dissatisfaction when meals were bland and boring. They began to request more variety in the menu and higher quality preparation. This happens when people become paying customers. A couple men from the lunch crowd who claimed to have culinary experience offered to prepare one of the mid-day meals (which volunteers from churches had always provided). The paying patrons were delighted with the results. By popular demand, these resident “chefs” were invited to take over menu planning and meal preparation. The lunch crowd grew. As did the demand. Over time this “free soup kitchen” blossomed into a successful catering business that served the downtown business community as well as hundreds of paying customers from the street, happy to get a quality meal for a bargain price. Parity had overtaken charity, to the delight of a wider circle of people.
This is why FCS replaced our free clothes closet with a thrift store. And our food pantry with a grocery store. And free lunches with a neighborhood coffee shop. If we truly believe that community is fundamental to human flourishing (shalom), then we will avoid practices that undermine community. We will create systems of mutual exchange that produce dignity and authentic lasting relationships.