How to Help the Poor

This article from Philanthropy Roundtable Magazine shows how to teach fishing rather than giving fish.

An excerpt.

At a warehouse on the edge of Portland, Oregon, low-income shoppers fill large yellow carts with produce, canned goods, frozen meat, and pastries. They can also pick up household items, clothing, and work boots at this 23-year-old nonprofit, the second-largest redistributor of food and other goods in Oregon. The staff at Birch Community Services, however, make one thing clear to their working-poor clients: This is no handout.

In an unusual twist, Birch participants agree to use the money they would have spent on groceries and clothes to pay down debt and build up savings, further their education, or upgrade job skills. They must meet regularly with a financial planner and take classes at Birch to make sure they set and reach these goals. There are also optional classes on computer skills, cooking, gardening, and searching for a job. More than 900 families participated in Birch in 2014.

Personal responsibility and accountability are big here. To remain in the program, every month participants pay a $60 fee and volunteer two to four hours at Birch. “We talk about it as the dignity of exchange,” says development director Ray Keen. “A family who gives back doesn’t feel like they have to check their dignity at the door when they come for food. They’re part of the solution.”

Universal volunteering also fuels a strong sense of community. “The provision of food and household goods is secondary to the extended friendships that have resulted, as we have seen God provide for the working poor,” says Suzanne Birch, executive director and co-founder with her husband, the late Barry Birch.

There was a time Barry never expected to live past 40. His history of alcoholism and broken relationships left him ­dumpster-diving for food and contemplating suicide. But he started going to church and found God, and also Suzanne. Together they started making better choices, and three years later they married. In 1992, a friend at the local Union Gospel Mission delivered a batch of bread to the Birches’ porch. They gave what they didn’t need to two single moms in the neighborhood. Their generosity blossomed and eventually grew into Birch Community Services.

In 2014, Birch received donations from 150 community partners at its 22,500-square-foot warehouse, and the organization distributed 8.1 million pounds of food and other necessities. Groceries come nearly expired or barely bruised from Costco, Starbucks, and other local retailers, and from Birch’s two ­volunteer-run teaching gardens. Having access to these donations allows an average family to offset about $9,000 of expenses per year.

Retrieved August 5, 2015 from

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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