The secret to living is giving, but what are the best ways to give? Maybe you volunteer or make regular donations. But does this help create systemic change or solve the real problems creating poverty and need? What are sustainable, productive ways to help others surpass their need for outside aid and thus, in turn, start giving back to others?

To put it another way, one persistent problem with charities is that if they succeeded in their missions – as in their clients no longer need what they have to offer – they then put themselves out of business. Worldwide conversations about unconditional basic income and government subsidies raise questions about creating dependency. But to assume people need help because they are lazier or less motivated than others is a mistake.

Take these three models of giving, all aid types that help people break free from the cycle of poverty, supporting the creation of lasting change in their communities as a result.


Evidence has been mounting about the effectiveness of cash aid over traditional aid to the poor, such as food or seeds, for years, reports NPR. But evidence and data still must fight against preconceptions about what aid should look like.

Today most aid comes as “in-kind” donations, meaning the aid providers decide what poor people need most, whether that’s schoolbooks, certain foods, or other assets. But what happens when the people who need help decide what they want to spend money on?

A recent study in Zambia looked at how people spent cash they were given with no strings attached through two government programs. They found the cash had an incredible multiplier effect. Household spending increased by over 50% more than the government aid. In other words, if someone got $150 from a program, that same year they spent $300 more than they had before. People used their free money to make more money, boosting the overall economy as people spent their money at local shops and businesses.

With such incredible returns, scaling this program seems like the logical next step. Yet persistent beliefs about who should get aid – the elderly, people who can’t work – instead of able-bodied people living in poverty means this particular initiative is only growing slowly.

Other organizations like GiveDirectly have also found lasting impact from single-time donations to poor people with no strings attached. People often use the money to start small businesses or invest in their children’s education, leading to lasting improvements in their quality of life.


Other initiatives strive to create local job opportunities through training programs. Warby Parker’s “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair,” works through this model. Instead of donating frames to communities in need, the company partners with organizations like VisionSpring to train people who then sell ultra-affordable glasses.

The benefits here are twofold: people who sell the glasses can earn a living and people with untreated vision problems can get back to working and learning now that they can see. VisionSpring calculates that glasses can increase a person’s productivity by 35% and their monthly income by 20%.


What about need in the USA? Food insecurity (a lack of consistent access to food to support an active, healthy life) impacts an estimated one in eight Americans; that’s 42 million Americans, including 13 million children. Without consistent access to food, it’s difficult for people to live productive, healthy lives. But feed someone and they have the energy to live in a high quality way.

“In this country we have a large empathy gap,” explains Diana Aviv, chief executive officer of Feeding America. “A lot of people think that because we have a low unemployment rate, at the moment, that the problem of hunger is poor people are lazy and anybody can get a job if they like. That’s just not the case. Well over 50% of the people who are part of our system are kids, seniors, peoples with disabilities or working families.” Feeding America fights to end hunger with their national network of food banks and meal programs, aiming for a hunger-free America. It’s why Tony Robbins himself supports their cause so strongly, with annual 100M Meals challenges every year where he matches all donations – with the goal of providing one billion meals by 2025.


Ready to add your contribution and help make lasting change? No matter how you give, do your due diligence to see how the organization manages its resources. Charity Navigator and GuideStar both give you a closer look at how organizations use your donations. The best organizations are transparent about their contributions and expenses as well as their vision for breaking the cycle of dependency, improving life for us all.

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