For much of 2017, we had LGBT refugees from Iraq and Uganda living at our house in the Bay Area. I sent out some private reflections and anecdotes about the experience to some friends. For those especially interested in the topic, feel free to email me and I can share with you.
Here are the thoughts on philanthropy that I’ve been mulling over after the tremendously fulfilling experience of hosting refugees.
Maximizing Philanthropic Utilitarian Impact vs. Emotional Satisfaction
My favorite charity to support is Give Directly. Give Directly sends money directly to some of the poorest people in the world with no strings attached. Backed by research, I believe Give Directly is one of the most efficient ways for your dollars to help those who need it most.
The challenge as a donor to Give Directly is that you don’t feel anything when you give. The money leaves your bank account and ends up in some stranger’s bank account. Then you move on with your life. Whereas when you host refugees, you feel very emotionally involved in the experience. But helping one refugee in the Bay Area is not making a dent in the global refugee issue in general, arguably one of the most important humanitarian issues of the next decade. The “systems”/impact part of my brain struggles with this.
What I realized this past year is that our experience hosting the men was a perfect 1-2 punch. By being extremely hands-on with three refugees, we generated the emotional propulsion to care deeply about the refugee issue more generally. We then used that emotional energy to engage at the systems level: learn how the systems work, research which organizations are helping, and begin to take steps to engage in philanthropy that would be more scalable.
Doing only Give Directly or any other type of super utilitarian and analytical but ultimately feeling-free giving would be emotionally unsustainable. Doing only refugee hosting or food bank handouts, or any other type of non-scalable, super local volunteer activity would undershoot on our potential to maximize impact. Do both — that’s what we learned.
Are the Financially Poorest People the Absolute Neediest?
When I donate to charity, in my own small way I try to prioritize helping the financially neediest on a global scale. For this reason, I haven’t given much to America-centric non-profits.
That said, the refugee experience has prompted me to re-evaluate an element of this belief. To what extent is financial poverty the truest proxy of neediness? The LGBT refugees from Iraq had phones, Facebook and Snapchat accounts, and exposure to most modern technologies that we have in California. In financial terms, they were/are richer than teenagers living in, say, the slums of India. At the same time, they’ve been disowned, indeed had their lives threatened, by their own family. And exiled from their country. And rejected by their religious community because of their sexual orientation. Who’s needier?
You Can Care About Complete Strangers. You Can Love People who Aren’t Biologically Related to You.
Complete strangers walk into your house. From a different culture, speaking a different language. They shack up with you. You help them. They help you. You argue with them. You laugh with them. You begin to care about them. You begin to love them.
I now have a glimpse, I think, into how and why people adopt children. You really can love people who aren’t biologically related to you. In our own ways, we truly grew to love the refugees who lived with us.