The Commons: How Can I Love You Better?

The wisdom of asking one simple and difficult question

 Paul Sutherland on volunteering

After the Haiti earthquake, I toured the Port-au-Prince hospital with my wife, Amy, to see a few of the organizations we have supported over the years to make sure we were helping them in ways that foster resilience, self-sufficiency, and non-dependence. The administrator showed us rooms filled with donated supplies, most still boxed or covered in dusty plastic. A new CAT scanner was also draped in dusty plastic: “Donated after the quake by some Americans,” the administrator said, and shrugged. “But we have no electricity to make it work and no one knows how to run it.” Then we walked past a damaged staircase. “We can’t access the upper floors of the hospital because we don’t have $5,000 to fix it.” To which our driver/interpreter added, “My wife bore our child right there on the grass in front of the hospital because they had no bed for her.”

I tried to imagine all the good that could have been done if the well-meaning donors had come to ask the administrator, “How can we truly help? How can we love you better?”

When I was Chairman of Safe Passage, a Guatemala charity that serves children living on the dump in Guatemala City, we would get what thoughtful people imagined a school that served children at a dump would need. So a large and expensive water purifier sat in a locked shed, donated with love by a US service group whose charitable theme that year was clean water. Alas, the purifier required consistent electricity and water pressure, two things that even the richer Guatemalan communities wish for. What the school actually needed was books, money to pay teachers, and people to help with vocational education. What’s sad is that so many donor groups spend enormous amounts of time and energy raising money to be helpful, but so little time digging into the hard question: “How can we love you? How can we help?”

Giving an enormously expensive CAT scanner may actually be easier than sending someone to ask what is truly needed. Asking places us in an abyss of uncertainty. We risk placing control and power into someone else’s hands. So we must keep in mind that the answer we get does not by itself require action. We get to decide if the request is reasonable or unhelpful. We can say no. We can also say, “I love where you are going with your request, can we chat about it?” The power to say “no” or “let’s look further into your request” is an awesome power, often left unused. The conversation can go on and on—and tends to gets better with time and trust.

When I first met Safe Passage’s founder and director, Hanley Denning, she was living in a garden shed, taking pail showers, and probably hadn’t bought new clothing for herself in five years. Her $125 monthly income also went to buy special things for her kids. I know this because I went and saw how she was living and what she was doing. We agreed at the start of our relationship that we would be able to ask anything of each other, at any time. We also agreed that we could just say “no” without giving any explanation. That really works.

The Jewish sage Maimonides defined eight levels of giving: The lowest form is giving by force or coercion. But “the highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.” That’s still true.

The Unintended Consequences of Well Building

We all know the story: Poor women have to walk for miles each day in the hot sun, risking rape and injury, just to get water. So let’s donate a well and liberate these women! I asked my friend in Mozambique about building a well, and he told me this story:

“My friend from Italy came and saw the women and the long walks, so he paid to have a well dug, and he proudly took me to see it a week after it had been completed. We got there to find the well had been filled in—and the women filled it! They explained, ‘We liked walking to get our water—we chatted and played with our children. When we are at home, the men beat us and boss us around. So we filled it in.’”

What you can do

If You Have a Minute… Take a soft full breath and ask yourself, “How can I love you better?”

If You Have an Hour… Meditate on how you can transform your relationships by asking, “How can I love you better?”

If You Have $10… Donate books on early childhood development to orphanages, nurseries, and early childhood centers. Or pay two months’ school fees for a child in the Kibera slums of Kenya.

If You Have a Month… Volunteer somewhere that will stress you out and have your friends asking: “You’re going where?” “Doing what?” And “Are you crazy?”


Paul Sutherland is Chairman of Utopia Foundation. To learn more about effective giving and volunteering, go to utopiafound.org.