Which Charities Do the Most to Actually Fight Poverty? This Book Points You in the Right Direction

Americans donated a whopping $358.38 billion to charitable causes in 2014. That’s a 7.1 percent jump from 2013, according to the Giving USA Foundation. Research by Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute found that households headed by conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than households headed by liberals.

So with conservatives giving so generously to charitable causes, which charities are worth their while? As of May, there were approximately 1.5 million charitable organizations operating in the United States. Donors deserve to know which of them spend their money most wisely.

A new book published by the Philanthropy Roundtable offers answers. “Clearing Obstacles to Work: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Fostering Self-Reliance” provides recommendations for donors at every income level, from as little as $1,000 to $500,000 and beyond. Author David Bass takes a skeptical approach to government’s ability to revitalize impoverished communities, and makes the case that government programs too often encourage further dependency rather than self-reliance, community building, and reciprocity.

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“Government agencies have a very checkered history when it comes to helping people who have struggled with work develop the habits and talents to do better,” Roundtable leaders Adam Meyerson, Karl Zinsmeister and Jo Kwong write in the book’s introduction. “Statistically, most government job-training programs are quite unimpressive. There are, however, many charitable programs that have demonstrated real success at leading unskilled persons, single mothers, inexperienced minorities, released prisoners, former addicts, and other at-risk populations into lasting, transformative employment.”

“Clearing Obstacles” is divided into sections focused on specific problems, highlighting successful approaches to homelessness, substance abuse, and disability, including The Doe Fund, a charity we have covered here at Opportunity Lives that offers housing and employment to homeless ex-convicts.

The book also introduces readers to the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) headquartered in Houston, Texas, with a satellite office in Dallas. PEP connects currently imprisoned inmates with successful businessmen who serve as mentors both during and after prison. A controlled analysis by Baylor University found that just 7 percent of 2009 PEP graduates had returned to crime after three years, compared to 23 percent rate statewide. PEP also beat the top nine best rehabilitation programs run in Texas prisons in reducing the flow of released inmates back into illegal activity. The Baylor study also compared PEP graduates to former prisoners who had qualified for PEP but received paroled before they could participate. This sample group showed a correlation between PEP and a drop in the recidivism rate of its participants to less than one-third of the state average.

“The government approach to the war on poverty has taken a very materialistic viewpoint of  ‘How do we provide food, shelter, clothing?’ and not really looked at ‘What are the human barriers that lead you to need these programs?’” Kwong explained to Opportunity Lives editor-in-chief John Hart. “And so we’re very excited at the Roundtable to be looking at civil society, private sector solutions that take a little bit more of a broader worldview. ‘What’s holding you back from achieving your full potential? What would you need to overcome the barriers so that you can essentially join the free enterprise economy by having a job?’”

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Source: National Philanthropic Trust

In discussing the 50-year-anniversary of LBJ’s “War on Poverty,” Kwong was skeptical that today’s nearly $1 trillion in government spending has helped break the poverty cycle.

“The third-generation welfare kid really does not know how to become part of the free enterprise economy,” she said. “They just don’t know, whether that’s through our own creation or not, they don’t know. And that’s part of our responsibility, how can we reach that at-risk youth, that chronically unemployed individual, the ex-offender. Because there’s a lot more than economics that they need.”

In the section on family breakdown and welfare dependency, “Clearing Obstacles” discusses some of these broader needs, noting research from the Heritage Foundation that found “simply being married is enough to reduce by 82 percent the probability that your child will live in poverty.”

The book spotlights an organization called First Things First, founded in 1997 in Chattanooga, Tennessee with funding from the Maclellan Family Foundation. The group partnered with nonprofits, churches, and government agencies to increase premarital preparation and run parenting classes for fathers and mothers.

First Things First worked with city schools and publicized the advantages of intact families for children and adults, creating “lunch and learn” seminars inside workplaces and retraining local mental-health professionals to revive troubled marriages. Working with the county divorce court, the organization established a divorce mediation project, requiring couples with small children to take a class to learn about the effects of divorce on kids and requiring them to develop a post-divorce parenting plan.

These results bore fruit: 10 years later, divorce filings fell by 29 percent in the Chattanooga area, and those that proceed are now less likely to involve conflicts over custody and child support. Teen out-of-wedlock births have also decreased 62 percent. Other foundations have noticed and followed suit, and these groups founded the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center to coordinate efforts.

Kwong’s advice to would-be donors is to look for organizations that “believe in the dignity of the individual.”

The best groups, she said, will find ways to impart the message that “It’s not about where you’ve been, it’s about where you can go, and we are here to help you get there. We are here to walk alongside, to learn from you and to help you.”

“And for all of us, to create a situation where the vision is more ‘Any one of us can fall into need, and I want to know that I live in a world where, when my time of need comes, you are there,” she added.

Carrie Sheffield is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.