When crisis strikes the giving community

The abduction of missionaries in Haiti reflects broader challenges in philanthropic work. A new commission seeks to reimagine giving.

People in Port-au-Prince go through a blockade Oct. 18 as Haitians joined a general strike to protest a wave of kidnappings, days after the abduction of a U.S.-based group of missionaries fueled international concerns over gang violence.

In its annual reports, Christian Aid Ministries makes sure to highlight “new or significant” changes influencing its charity work. The changes range from wars to hurricanes to new types of microfinancing. Last year’s report noted that even before the pandemic, “we were confronted with an abundance of physical needs and spiritual opportunities.”

This week, the Ohio-based relief organization faced a very significant change. In Haiti, which is in political chaos, 17 of its missionaries were abducted by a notorious gang, presumably for ransom. The aid group asked for prayers, especially to “pray that the gang members would come to repentance.”

The crisis for Christian Aid Ministries is the latest example of the difficult challenges and rapid shifts confronting those who give, whether the giving is in the form of money, goods, volunteering, or prayer. From COVID-19 to a big drop in donations by middle-class Americans, the “giving industry” is being forced to innovate while also rediscovering its core motive – a love for humanity.

The instinct to give is eternal, but to help revive it, philanthropy leaders such as Points of Light and Salvation Army announced last week that they had formed a 17-member panel called the Generosity Commission. Its task is to assess the new ways that people are giving and to rethink “generosity across America.”

“We want to capture and celebrate the ways in which giving, volunteering, and civic engagement are being re-imagined before our eyes,” says Suzy Antounian, the director of the commission, which was initiated by the Giving Institute and the Giving USA Foundation.

The forms of giving are rapidly changing beyond philanthropic foundations or traditional charity groups. They range from social entrepreneurs – who seek a profit in bringing about social change – to crowdfunding and social impact bonds. More companies now accept a responsibility toward society at large. Young people want to serve differently by building community, beyond giving money or doing short stints as volunteers. “People are redefining their philanthropy and their engagement,” says Ms. Antounian.

For those involved in giving, each new crisis or adverse trend can help expand current ideas of how to achieve the public good. They also challenge the idea that goodness itself has limits or that generosity is a fleeting quality of the heart.

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