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About the Author
Jessica Jackley is an award-winning social entrepreneur focused on financial inclusion, the sharing economy, and social justice. She is best known as a co-founder of Kiva, the world’s first and largest P2P microlending website. She also co-founded ProFounder, a pioneering crowdfunding platform for U.S. entrepreneurs, and Kin & Co., a consultancy helping organizations support women and working families. She is an investor and advisor with Collaborative Fund, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. An active board member for several nonprofit organizations including Habitat for Humanity, Jackley holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, a certificate in Global Leadership and Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and a BA from Bucknell University. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three sons.
Read an Excerpt
Find the Courage to Question
The Poor with Us
Our Sunday school teacher read, as she did every week, from the Good News Bible. She told us about Jesus: about what he said and did, about the big and small miracles, about how to live a good life. I listened intently as I sat cross-legged on my carpet square, one of a dozen fuzzy islands floating on a sea of linoleum tiles. Behind her, a construction paper chart was taped to the wall, with the names of all the students in class, each with some number of gold stars next to the name. I stared at the stars lined up next to my name, one for every time I had done well (I’d earned my newest one for memorizing the Twenty-third Psalm), counting them over and over again, and comparing my ranking among the other kids. I imagined the stars were my team of cheerleaders, each standing on two pointy legs with a pointy head and two pointy arms outstretched right and left. I was five and a half years old and wanted nothing more than to be good. A good daughter, a good sister, a good student, a good everything.
On this particular Sunday, my teacher was talking about poverty. She explained that people living in poverty did not have even the most basic things they needed, like food or clothing or shelter. She told us that Jesus loved the poor and wanted everyone else to love them too. Reading from the Bible in a scattershot way, she jumped around from story to story. One was about a widow giving the last of her coins at church; another was about someone called a Samaritan who helped a sick man on the side of the road; another was about someone pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet. Some of the stories made sense to me. Many did not.
I tried to follow along in my own Bible, a hardcover G-rated children’s version with an oversized font and colorful illustrations. It was the biggest book I owned, and therefore felt like the most important. I flipped through it carefully, looking at the cartoon drawings, keeping an eye out for pictures of the kinds of people my Sunday school teacher was talking about: the poor. In some scenes they were pale and gaunt, down on their knees, their arms reaching up to a bright, sunny heaven for help. In others they were barefoot and filthy, with rags for clothing. They were people shouting in pain, wounded black and blue, or sick with white, leprous skin; people crying, bandages spotted with red across their eyes, chest, head, or hands; people on stretchers, green with nausea or gray with death.
As I stared at the pictures, my Sunday school teacher quoted Jesus, saying, “What you do for the least of these you do for me.”
Her words made me stop and look up.
For a child who wanted nothing more than to do well by her parents and teachers, the idea that I could be some sort of cosmic helper was the most motivating thing I had ever heard! Helping the poor was helping God Himself. I felt I had just been given the world’s greatest homework assignment. I would get this right. I wanted more stars. Big ones.
My mind raced with questions about how this was supposed to work. Where were these poor people? How exactly should I help? How did God keep track of how well I was doing? Did the poor report back up to heaven when I gave them my things—sort of like how (according to my mom) the myriad Santas at the mall reported back to the one real Santa at the North Pole what I wanted for Christmas? Would I be docked points if I handed over only the stuff I didn’t want, like the crayons in colors I never used, or the half of my sandwich that had less peanut butter and jelly on it, and kept all my favorite things for myself? Or was every poor person actually God himself, like Jesus had been, since God could be everywhere and was, apparently, good at disguises?
As the litany ran through my head, my Sunday school teacher told us something else that Jesus said, something that again stopped me cold. She said, as if it was no big deal at all, that Jesus promised, “The poor will always be with us.”
My stomach knotted. I felt confused, then angry, then scared as this sunk in. Why would God make poor people stay poor forever? Couldn’t God make the world however he wanted? And what did this mean for me? Were my plans to help the poor destined to be inadequate? Was Jesus setting me up to fail?
A terrifying scenario began to form in my head. I saw a long line of poor people in front of me, one after another after another, each in need of something I had. One was asking for my coat; one wanted my softest blanket. Another insisted I hand over the azure-blue crayon I loved. Two others wanted not just half my PB and J sandwich, but all of it. Every time I gave something to one of these people, they would say “thank you,” but then they would make the long walk back to the end of the line, using up my crayon and gobbling my sandwich on the way, and then they would take their place again so they could return to me for more. Because, after all, the poor would always be with us. With me. They would never stop needing and they would never go away. They would follow me around everywhere I went, asking for something else, something more. Their poverty would be endless. No matter how much I gave, it would never be enough.
Jesus said so.
The Cost of a Cup of Coffee
As I got older, I heard other stories that convinced me the problem of poverty was enormous. These stories reiterated the notion that poverty could never really be solved, not completely. They assured me that, while it was nice to try, no one could ever really help enough or fix things well enough to make a permanent difference.
Over time the illustrations of the poor in my Good News Bible were replaced with the much more real and far more intense images I saw in mailings from charity organizations, or in the newspapers and magazines that came to our house: people pleading for help, their arms outstretched to the camera, alongside headlines of disaster or disease; men with fists raised in riot, alongside news of oppression or war; women fleeing from fighting and famine; children with swollen bellies lying in makeshift hospital rooms; babies like skeletons, their rib cages and collarbones just beneath a thin layer of skin, with flies perched on the edges of their sunken eyelids. Everyone, and everything around them, seemed dirty, broken, angry, empty.
These images convinced me that the poor lived very far away from me. My neighborhood in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, seemed like a fairy tale in comparison. None of the kids I knew looked like those I saw in these photographs. Everyone around me looked healthy and well fed. I lived in a modern Norman Rockwell painting of soft front lawns and big shady trees with perennial flowers circling their trunks. The front doors of the houses on my street were swung open in the summer and decorated with holly and wreaths in the wintertime. Hopscotch chalk lines stained the sidewalks. Bicycles and scooters lay strewn across front yards. Minivans were parked neatly in driveways.
I could not imagine the poor existing in the only world I knew. How could anyone go hungry when every kitchen I had ever seen had a full fridge and a crowded pantry? How could anyone be homeless when even my neighbors’ dogs had doghouses, and where even the mail had nice mailboxes to sit in? How could it be that not everyone had a warm jacket when everyone in my family had both winter clothes and summer clothes, and even different shoes for school and soccer practice and church?
So when stories about poor people infiltrated my idyllic existence, they caught my attention. I tried hard to imagine those people and to process the statistics that accompanied the stories. Half of the world was living on less than $2 a day. Twenty-two thousand children were dying each day from poverty. Nearly a billion people were unable to read a book or sign their names. These enormous, haunting numbers were impossible for my brain to fathom, so my heart took over. I felt anger, sadness, fear, guilt, even shame about my own relative wealth and privilege as a white, middle-class American kid.
Of course, this was exactly the desired effect of the well-intentioned nonprofits vying for my attention in their marketing campaigns. They counted on their messages to make me feel something, and then they relied on my ability to translate those feelings into action: The worse I felt, the more I should want to give. Then, just when I thought I couldn’t take any more sad statistics, the nonprofit offered a way out: Donate! Give! Help!
Who could say no? All I had to do was pick up the phone, dial the 1-800 number on the screen, and I would be connected with someone who could solve these problems (via check, credit card, or money order)! If I just emptied my pockets or dug through my couch cushions for loose change, I’d find enough to extend a child’s life for one more day! If I could spare even the smallest amount—Sally Struthers and other passionate spokespeople told me that “less than the cost of a cup of coffee” was enough—I could be a part of their game-changing work! For just a few dollars I could become the solution!
And so I gave. I dug for lost coins. I took my weekly allowance to church and stuffed it into the velvety bag that was passed around to collect the congregation’s tithes. And I got others to give too. I hawked Dixie cups half-full of watery Kool-Aid from a card table on my front lawn. I sold magazine subscriptions and cookies and gigantic chocolate bars door-to-door. I toted my UNICEF box around the neighborhood on Halloween night. And every once in a while, my mom would take me to the local bank, which would tally the change, and then my mom would send a check and my handwritten notes to the poor kids I had seen on TV.
Each time I did these things, I felt a little bit better. At least for a while.
Part of me knew that giving a few dollars here and there was a cheap replacement for what I really sought. Deep down, I knew that I would never be satisfied until I could make some sort of real contact with the people I felt obligated to serve. In fact, I was becoming more and more certain that the strange cycle of giving in which I’d been participating actually made me feel more disconnected from the actual human beings I felt called to help. Instead of experiencing a real, meaningful interaction with a needy person, I was participating in a series of economic transactions with large organizations that had convinced me they knew how to fix things. I wasn’t actually allowed to hand over my PB and J sandwich. I was just funding someone else’s grocery list. It was all incredibly unsatisfying.
The follow-up letters from those nonprofits thanking me for my donations added insult to injury. I got form letters in the mail (usually addressed to my mom, who had written the check) thanking her for the donation in the first sentence and then immediately asking for more. As a caricature of personal touch, there were often ink-jet printed signatures of people I had never heard of and had not intended to give any money to. (What was an executive director? Why wasn’t the letter signed by Jamal in Ethiopia or Vilma in Guatemala, the kids from the infomercials?) Some organizations even went so far as to make the form letters look like they had little notes scrawled in the margins, as if their donors would be fooled by a “handwriting” font. Even as a kid I knew what was happening. I was being thanked by a computer.
I saved one of the most confusing, dissonant thank-you letters I received back then. For a while it hung taped to the wall above my desk. The letter came in response to a donation I had sent to a nonprofit organization specializing in medical procedures for babies born with cleft lips and palates. Along with a standard one-page thank-you note expressing how valuable my support was to the organization, I received a self-addressed envelope for an additional donation. So far, nothing new. But the envelope stood out. On it was a photograph, the face of a baby who had been born with a cleft lip, which had left a gaping hole from her mouth to her right nostril. Bafflingly, next to the picture—after I had just been told how much the organization appreciated every penny, and how much of a difference each contribution made—was a special offer: “Make one gift now, and we’ll never ask for another donation again.”
The campaign was as offensive to me as it was resonant, revealing an intimate understanding of the love/hate relationship that can unfold between well-intentioned donors and well-intentioned nonprofits. On the one hand, I knew every dollar was appreciated and would make a big difference. That part felt great. On the other hand, someone in that organization guessed that after a while, making an impact through their particular program would probably lose its thrill. Another few bucks, another smile repaired. Seen one, seen them all, right? So they decided to cut to the chase. Their message told me: “Hey donor, we get it. We’re bothering you. So let’s quit while we’re ahead. Pay us off and you can go on with your life.”
In a world with infinite need, with no such thing as “enough,” this organization seemed to understand that no donor could give forever.
Sadly, I couldn’t disagree. I had become convinced that it was impossible to give enough, to cause enough change, to care enough. So I still gave, but I did so knowing exactly what I was doing. I wasn’t just buying the privilege to change someone else’s life with my donation. I was buying a temporary sense of relief for myself. With each transaction, even that feeling of temporary reprieve became more and more fleeting. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up with all of the world’s requests for my spare change. It was just like the long line of poor people I had pictured in Sunday school, following me around forever.