Only the Servant to all can end poverty

DAY 4: The Passover Feast / Last Supper

Continuing with yesterday’s theme of “the clarity of powerlessness” brings us to the last supper, where Jesus tried to explain to his followers what he was doing and why it mattered:

And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it again until its meaning is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise he took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant sealed by my blood, which is being poured out for you.” (Luke: 22:22)

These actions were lost on his followers, who moments later began bickering over who was the greatest.

(Luke: 22.24) A dispute also arose among them, about which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “In this world, kings of nations lord over their subjects, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant.

For which is the greater, one who reclines at the table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits? But I am among you as one who serves.

You are those who have stood by me in times of trials; And I appoint unto you, as my Father has appointed unto me, a kingdom.

I’d like to clarify the language of this scene by translating it into redneck (AKA Southern American slang):

Jesus: I’ve been fixin to meet with y’all about somethin serious.

Others: What’s that, dawg?

Jesus: All that shit I been sayin about evil leaders, well it’s about to come back and bite me in the ass. But before I’m gone, I need you to understand what the hell I been talkin bout, cause its your job to keep the faith and spread the word, cuz.

Others: What are you talkin about?

Jesus: My entire life has been devoted to helping others see the beauty of their lives, helping them break free of rules set up by our messed up me-me-me society. I’ve always been my father’s servant.

Disc1: Yeah, we dig you for that. In fact, everbody loves you Jesus! Just think, we might even be on TV soon.

Disc2: And I’ll be our front man, of course!

Disc3: No I will!

Jesus: Y’all are just frickin stupid as nails. This stuff we’ve been doing all these years, it isn’t about breaking into a scene. It’s about reaching down into our own souls and rippin out all the ugliness that society put there. The leader among you will be the one who gets it – who becomes the dirtiest, most lowly, suffering servant. The one who cleans out the pig sty of society – so to speak – and gets no thanks from anybody. When you’re speaking out against evil, and our leaders are the ones who are to blame for it, nobody with any kind of status is going to want to be your friend, because you make them uncomfortable. Expect the silent treatment the more you speak the truth.

Working without power and influence

Set aside your money and weapons and look at the world anew:

A person of influence so rarely crosses Africa incognito that many of these people feel compelled to write a book about their extraordinary journey when they do. “The Real Africa” is a theme for many of the world’s elite class, and yet their experiences are probably still just scratching the surface. And touring the world with a machine gun in your hands (even on a “noble” mission) blinds you to the generosity of humanity just as much as if you were holding bags of cash. Peacekeepers cannot see what the powerless servant sees.

Large development organizations with pots of money are inherently unable to interact with the bulk of honest powerless people in communities. Their money and power make them a magnet for dishonest, self-serving people who put all their efforts into appearing honest. This is exacerbated by a philosophy of working through governments and official leaders. Too often these leaders got their positions by the same means that they did in Jesus’ time. If half the people you collaborate with cannot be trusted, then your task of separating out do-gooders from the impostors is very difficult. However, if the organization instead acts as a servant to others, fostering that which others have begun, meeting them half way, and giving skills and aid that cannot be put to ill uses, the task is easier.

To become an “aid servant,” you must understand what the lives of other peoples are like. For that you need to give up a lot more comfort, influence, and personal control of your life than most are willing to do. Few people are willing to make that sacrifice, which is why I firmly believe the best thing we could do to help America grow is to send every high school senior to another one of the non G20 countries to live and work the fields for a spell. Just living in a different culture, working on farm would be a fuller education than anything one can learn in a classroom after 12 years of classroom learning. It would yield a generation of people grounded in reality and filled with empathy for those weren’t born with the same opportunities by the accident of their birth to rich parents.

Aid servants, not aid workers

What does it really mean to foster the work others in communities have begun? Dennis Whittle used to talk about 5 things that large aid organizations do, that are all about hoarding power:

  1. They decide what the problem is.
  2. They decide what the solution is.
  3. They fund the project.
  4. They implement the solution directly (through their aid workers).
  5. They evaluate whether the solution worked.

To become an aid servant, we must do the opposite of these things, and we must ultimately embrace Jesus’ approach to ending the power that these institutions have over peoples’ lives:

  1. Let the local communities decide what the important problems are.
  2. Help the people understand the problem and let them choose solutions, guided by the what others have learned.
  3. Facilitate crowd-funding of projects, so that what happens is endorsed by many people in a democratic way. (Later it turns out to be essential that we train local people on how to be effective advocates in this funding mechanism)
  4. They implement their own project.
  5. Everyone evaluates each other as part of a shared system of learning.

GlobalGiving was started by a pair of ex-World Bankers and it was built to do these five things. Letting the four million local NGOs around the world promote their own projects online was easy; training them on how to build personal relationships with people so that they could attract that funding was hard. Getting 99.5% of the money raised out the door and into bank accounts within 5 weeks of the donation (typically 3 weeks) was hard, but we did it. To this day the World Bank still struggles to disburse their funds on time and to the right place, and they work with hundreds of entities; we work with thousands. To be a good steward of the lives and dreams of others required that we become more efficient at each step than any NGO has ever been. To become a public servant to other NGOs meant embracing a philosophy that customer satisfaction matters. We still answer every email and every phone call quickly; we don’t have a marketing department; we have a mistress of customer bliss (@KCEllis) and an unmarketing manager (@Acarlman).

Fixing evaluations continues to be our most daunting challenge of the 5, but we’ve made progress. The GlobalGiving storytelling project was launched to let every organization get a useful, real-time, and cost-effective evaluation of their work. Only along the way it became clear that for the same price we wouldn’t just be serving our 1800 NGO partners, we would be serving everyone. Instant-evaluations for every organization in East Africa with just a little bit of effort (answer 7 questions by text message) are just around the corner, as we real-time SMS conversations between these NGOs and their communities, instant direct feedback, and a bulk messaging system to announce community efforts to interested people as they happen.

I didn’t write all this GlobalGiving stuff to toot my own horn (I’ve been part of GlobalGiving for nearly 4 years), but because I could find no other example of what it means to be an “aid servant“. Being an aid servant means to put the needs, ideas, and prestige of others ahead of yourself on an organizational level. The organization has to be structured from the beginning around their rightful place in the world.


Our power- and influence-hungry world of aid organizations continues to seek proof of their impact on the lives of people. Yet this is folly. For impact, you need to know who attributed to a project’s success. For attribution, we need to know who contributed. For contribution, we need multiple perspectives from the people themselves (both those who benefited and those who were overlooked.) I don’t even think we can do contribution right, but at least the storytelling project is getting us much closer.

If you are truly an aid servant, impact is a distraction. What matters is that you spend every day asking others if you are doing everything possible to serve them, and whether you are on the right track in recognizing the needs of others so that you can serve them. Success is seeing those whom you serve improve. That can be measured without the need for attribution. True, funders will never truly know if your work was the crucial part that changed the lives of others, but then again, was their funding the crucial dollar that made your work successful?

If you are successful as an aid servant, people will call you and email you daily to thank you for what you have done. Daily gratitude is the fabric of the servant’s impact. And those who show you gratitude are just the tip of the iceberg (the one in every ten lepers that Jesus heals who returns to thank him) of your real impact. That’s okay. Because Heaven doesn’t grade on a curve. There is no “good enough” – there are only good works and bad works. In contrast, evaluations clearly do grade on a curve. They glorify the leaders and not the beneficiaries. They miss the mark of why things matter to humanity about as often as people forget to say thank you. When I say “aid flows from within” I mean that true aid and service begin from this radical philosophy of counting your blessings and your satisfied customers instead of counting your funders and your media mentions.

Passion Week

  1. the empire – and the hierarchy of aid power
  2. the gratitudes – a blueprint for social prosperity
  3. the clarity of powerlessness
  4. only public servants will bring an end to powerty
  5. NEXT: abandoning organizations on a quest for impact
  6. faith in institutions and Jesus on trial
  7. the path to resurrection is paved in failure
  8. epilogue: why the poor don’t speak up

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