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When Doing Good Isn't Good Enough

December 2012

Woman with child, holding a wrapped gift - LDS Philanthropies

Doing good is always good. It is never not good. No matter the time or place, a kind act, a thoughtful comment, a goodwill gesture always improves life.

Yet, all goodness is not created equally. Some goodness has more fire power. That kindness which preserves the dignity of the receiver, that fosters unity and leaves all feeling edified is the charity that lifts lives. The mere thought of such goodness stirs the soul.

A Relief Society president in West Virginia stood for higher principles of kindness, and in the process, taught her West Virginia stake a finer quality of Christmas joy.

The stake had a short history of working with a local women’s shelter. During a previous holiday season, stake leaders had arranged to provide gifts for children in the shelter.

The youth of the stake became electrified with their assignment. They stuffed stockings and gathered food. On Christmas Eve they descended on the shelter with bags brimming with gifts.

The children burst with excitement. The mood was festive and the youth came away intensely satisfied.

The following year, as the stake president presented the idea of serving the shelter for a second year, all among the stake council were exuberant, except the stake Relief Society president.

“I’m sorry,” she said to everyone’s surprise, “but I didn’t like that project.”

“What do you mean?” she was asked. “It was a great project. How could you not like it?”

“As we were handing out the gifts,” she said, “I looked at the women and mothers standing around the room. What I saw on their faces and in their eyes was not the excitement I expected. Instead, it was more like misery. They felt like failures. They were supposed to be in charge of Christmas. It was their cherished role to provide joy for their children, and they had failed to do so. As a result, their kids had to rely on charitable strangers.

“So, yes,” she said, “I’d like to do something different.”

She proposed stake and ward leaders meet with shelter directors to ask what they might do to help the women feel like they were providing Christmas.

In the course of discussions it was decided the stake would stock a room at the shelter with gifts. The women in the shelter would be encouraged to perform various tasks and jobs around the center to earn tickets that could be redeemed for the gifts.

This way the residents could maintain their dignity and create a Christmas by their efforts and give gifts in a more traditional way.

While some in the stake reacted with enthusiasm, others lamented the loss of seeing the radiant joy on the faces of the children as they ripped open their gifts.

As it was, the youth did not hear the children exclaim, “Oh! This is what I wanted.” But it was a better project for the mothers, who heard the same exclamation from their children, but this time because of their effort. They felt like heroes, not victims and failures. As a result, their families were strengthened. Love grew as mothers sacrificed for their children, and as children came to respect their mothers.

Principles of giving

1. Work cooperatively in the community with other like-minded partners, not in competition. More is accomplished by joining forces.

2. Find ways to involve the beneficiaries in meaningful ways. Seek their perspective, value their opinion. Providing opportunities for them to contribute douses the notion that they are on the periphery of society.

3. Find ways for the givers to participate without assuming ownership of the project, such as providing the gifts or rewards that others can earn by their efforts.

4. Solve local problems with local resources. Good projects focus on what can be done locally that the community can repeat or be sustained the next time the need arises. It serves little purpose to give American basketball shoes to children in Afghanistan. What will the child do the next year when the shoes are worn out and there is no charity to supply a new pair?

5. Outside assistance eventually goes away. Consider what can be done to teach, train, strengthen the beneficiaries when the issues come up the next time.

Projects founded on these principles require more management and thoughtful insight. But the benefits pay dividends. Such processes develop relationships. It doesn’t matter what the project is, whether it’s assembling kits, quilting or cleaning the park. What matters is that people talk to one another and come to understand each other and develop patterns of solving problems.

The world is filled with needs. Charity, in its purest form, is loving people, standing shoulder to shoulder with them day after day, facing their obstacles together.

Such service lifts, encourages, instills hope and understanding and can bring families, communities and nations together.