Loving the Stranger: 5 Lessons We’ve Learned
By Shoshana Boyd Gelfand
“We’ve got all the answers.”
That’s one phrase you’ll never hear from the Pears Foundation team. While we pride ourselves on our professionalism and have a fair amount of expertise in the areas we fund, we never confuse that with having all the answers. Instead, our philanthropic methodology is to commit to going on a learning journey together with a project or organisation. Together we learn and together we refine that learning. It’s a continual, evolving process.
Nowhere has this been truer than with our international development partners. Because Pears Foundation is grounded in Jewish values, there was never a question that we would be committed to “loving the stranger.” But exactly how best to love the stranger was very much an open question for the foundation’s leadership. Even experienced development professionals disagree vehemently about what constitutes an effective and ethical intervention. So answers are far from obvious. We certainly didn’t have answers when we started, and we don’t have definitive answers now.
What we do have, however, is a series of principles that shape the way we engage with our work in the developing world (as well as closer to home):
1. Do no harm
Our first principle is not as simple as it sounds. What’s the harm in overseas visitors painting fences as part of a study trip volunteering project? Isn’t that helpful, not harmful? We soon learned that these well-meaning volunteers might be depriving local workers of a job painting fences! This led to our first principle – to check whether any intervention will unintentionally cause more harm than good.
2. Partner with locals (with humility!)
The best way to guard from unintended harm is by working closely with the local community – and having humility that they know their community best. There are development horror stories of aid organisations delivering toilets to a rural village, only to discover there is no running water. Or a charity building a school, which remains empty as the children are needed at home to herd the goats. The most effective interventions are ones which emerge collaboratively from conversations with the local community about their needs and their capacities. One of the best on this front is Tevel b’Tzedek in Nepal, where they engage volunteers from both overseas and the local community. Not only are their interventions developed in partnership with locals, but they are also delivered in partnership, with great effect.
3. Avoid the messiah complex, you can’t save everyone
Rabbi Tarfon’s oft-repeated maxim from Pirkei Avot is profoundly true in development work: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.” The needs in the developing world are profound and can easily overwhelm as no one person or organisation can solve them all. At Pears Foundation, we often refer to the well-known parable about the starfish: One person bemoans the fact that he cannot save all the starfish stranded on a beach, while the other simply focuses on saving as many as he can. Pears Foundation’s method of focusing has been to direct our work towards particular geographical areas. But there are other effective ways of maintaining focus, such as the Gates Foundation’s mission to eradicate polio globally or Nala Foundation’s mission to break the poverty cycle by eradicating NTDs (Neglected Tropical Diseases).
4. Lift the tide for all ships
Maintaining focus doesn’t mean lowering the bar in terms of impact. Chosen wisely, energy can be directed to efforts that provide benefit not only to individuals and organisations, but to the field as a whole. For this reason, Pears Foundation has invested in “field-building” through creating umbrella organisations such as OLAM and SID-Israel. These organisations do what no single entity can achieve on its own: raising the profile of the field as a whole, convening professionals and funders, and advocating to change government legislation for the good of the field. Supporting both these big picture efforts as well as our partner organisations working on the ground creates a virtuous circle where the tide rises for everyone, whether they get direct support from Pears Foundation or not.
5. Don’t worry who gets the credit
Our Executive Chair, Trevor Pears, is fond of saying: “There is no limit to what can be achieved if you aren’t concerned with who gets the credit.” Of course, we all have egos and appreciate recognition, but that can never be the driving factor in doing development work. Sadly, the need for credit is all too often a barrier to the kind of collaboration required to address systemic issues like global poverty. Our proudest moments as a funder, therefore, have been watching various partners learn from each other and work together to build the field – and then sharing the deep satisfaction that comes from this shared achievement.
Most people see foundations simply as a source for funding. While Pears Foundation’s financial resources are certainly a crucial part of what it can offer, we’ve learned that foundations can also offer something else of value: a vantage point. Because we don’t face the same daily pressures as our partners working on the ground, we can keep our eye on the existential vision that we all share both as Jews and as human beings: a world free from hunger, poverty and disease. By connecting our many grantees who share that vision, we can help organisations learn together and work together, not only in partnership with us but also with each other. Perhaps in that sense, we do have the answer after all: striving to learn together how we might best love the stranger.
Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is a member of the OLAM Board and the Director of JHub, an operating programme of the London-based Pears Foundation.
Cross-posted on OLAM.