Do No Harm When Giving

Young people hold signs asking for help after Typhoon Haiyan hits the Philippines. (CNS photo/Charlie Saceda, Reuters)
Young people hold signs asking for help after Typhoon Haiyan hits the Philippines. (CNS photo/Charlie Saceda, Reuters)

I used to work for a non-profit that would give out food on a regular basis. We would get donations from the local Food Bank plus any other donations people would drop off at our doorstep. The first time I helped to prepare the food, I was taken aback. There were tables of cakes and pies and cookies and sweet breads, and any other sugary treat you could think of. I stared in awe thinking how happy some little kid was going to be when his grandma came home with a big Elmo cake.

It wasn’t until I worked there a little longer that I learned how this mountain of baked goods arrived at our door like clockwork. One day a woman was at the grocery store and saw all these bakery items getting tossed into the trash. She was horrified at the waste of food and endeavored to get a group of her friends together to go around to several grocery stores to pick up all the leftover bakery goods and bring them to us.

Wow, I marveled. This group of women saw a need (people that need food), a solution (grocery stores throw out baked goods too old to sell), and took action. Good for them. Another person I worked with at the time who had a master’s in public health grimaced as I said that last statement and then proceeded to patiently walk me through why I was wrong. Not wrong that I was proud of those women for stepping up and helping, but wrong in my assessment that their solution was a good one.

Most of the people who received the donated food were at risk of diabetes, had diabetes, ranged from overweight to obese, had high blood pressure, etc. And every week they came to us and we would hand them a ticking time bomb with sprinkles on top. Not all food is created equal. Was there a better solution to finding leftover food? Yes. Many grocery stores also allow people to pick up leftover produce that no one will buy. He then proceeded to tell me that he sought out this group of women to explain to them the health issues we see in the people we serve and when he offered them some alternatives to bringing cakes and cookies, they were very offended. They stopped coming for months. And then one day, as if nothing had happened, they started bringing all the bakery goods again.

I was reminded of this incident as I read through this article about what we should send to help people in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. It is a beautiful thing to see an outpouring of compassion during a crisis. God’s call to love thy neighbor touches some people so deeply that it spurs them to action. This is great and we want to encourage this type of response. But it is important for us first to consider whether what we want to do will cause more harm than good. It is important to distinguish between doing good because we truly want to help and doing good because it makes us feel good. We must believe and put trust in organizations on the ground working with these people in need. We must have faith that what these organizations are telling us they need is what they actually need. Just because what they usually need is money should not make us suspect of their intentions. Money is the quickest way to help people in a crisis.

While I would love to imagine the teddy bear that Olivia no longer plays with sleeping in the sweet embrace of a child who has lost everything to the typhoon, really what that kid needs is a tarp to sleep under or a water kit to purify his water. Please consider a donation to Catholic Relief Services or another non-profir relief agency to help those who so desperately need aid in the Philippines.