Secrets of Effective Giving

Here's when and how you can best help the poor.
Secrets of Effective Giving
Image: Stuart Fisher

Ryan Loofbourrow is a recognized leader in the urban poverty field, a homelessness guru.

He is charged with directing the immense and thankless effort to combat homelessness in greater Sacramento County, California, where a disproportionate number of the homeless reside. He is also my brother-in-law.

During the holidays, we have been known to conversationally isolate ourselves from the yuletide chatter to engage in wonky conversations around what the latest evidence conveys about effective and ineffective poverty interventions. It’s a guaranteed merriment-killer at any Christmas gathering, but there is nothing either of us finds to be as interesting or important.

Much of our conversation focuses on effective giving. Christians often want to give, but unfortunately not all of our giving is helpful. Some of it is effective, some of it is ineffective, and some of it can be destructive in any number of ways.

Consider, for example, how to help the urban homeless in America. Much of the cash given on the street to homeless people in the United States is used to buy alcohol and narcotics. Doling out small amounts of cash may enable destructive behaviors, but smarter and more substantial interventions may yield positive and transformative effects.

For example, instead of handouts and other short-term fixes to homelessness, Loofbourrow and many of his colleagues have come to favor an approach called the “housing first” model to help the urban American homeless. While many other approaches use housing as a kind of economic carrot to provide an incentive for sobering up and getting off drugs, “housing first” takes the opposite approach.

The model is based on the idea that the extreme stress endemic to homelessness ...

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