Why I Refuse to Take Donations: A Learning Experience

Jun 08, 2016




One might think that being an individual who travels fairly frequently to developing communities across the globe, my suitcases would be overflowing with donations, and I’d be taking more things for others than I would for myself.  This is not the case.  It’s not that we are hard up for donations – there are plenty of people who want to feel good above giving to those who have less.  However contrary to what you might expect, this is not a rallying cry for blankets, toys, shoes, and previously loved clothes that may or may not be made by children in a sweatshop for the Canadian equivalent of ten cents per day.  It’s because I don’t do donations. For a clear purpose.

Our first CLOUD Project in Kenya was at an Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp, supporting victims of the 2007-20
08 post-election violence that displaced thousands of families.  This particular community was bar none, the most impoverished community I have been exposed to since my first experience in developing communities in rural mountains of The Dominican Republic in 1998.

I was accompanied by a group of students from the University of Waterloo. Upon arrival, they too, were taken aback with by the extreme poverty.  The graves are pre-dug as they regularly experience death due to starvation and illness.

One of the students had collected some toys from a family friend prior to departure to distribute to the kids in the community.  She suggested that we take soccer balls, a football and Frisbees to play with the kids during breaks.  I thought that this might be an opportune time to do a brief introduction to responsible project integration and meaningful cultural exchange.  On the surface, the toys seemed thoughtful and fun.  But when looking through the lens of an impoverished family struggling to feed their children, perspective changes drastically.  We collectively opted to leave the toys behind for the following reasons:

  1. Bringing aisle 3 from Toys r Us subliminally (and for the adults – directly) insinuates that toys of any worth must be purchased – something that we can easily do, but something they cannot do,  and will not be doing for foreseeable future.  It’s the Canadian equivalent to the rich ignorant Uncle visiting the poor cousins on Christmas day, and bringing loads of toys their parents could not afford – suddenly the months of saving for something special on Christmas morning doesn’t seem so special to an 8 year old, but with far more serious consequences.
  2. Filling day 2 with excitement around “look what the Canadians brought” would undoubtedly bring smiles and excitement to children who don’t receive gifts very often, making for some great photography.  But our mission at The NWC does not include guaranteed content for the best ever Facebook profile photos and Instagram shots.  It was necessary to set a precedent not just through words, but through actions, that we are not here to give gifts; we are here to work together to achieve sustainable solutions to very serious long term social challenges.  And we can have a ton of fun doing just that.
  3. Surrounding IDP camps are equally in need.  If word were to get out in surrounding communities that we bring toys with every group, we run the risk of indirectly upsetting a fragile balance in inter-community relations – CLOUD Projects uses a zero negative impact approach in all of our development projects, and every last detail is scrutinized both within The NWC, and in cooperation with our partner NGO’s/non-profits and the leadership in each individual community
  4. One of our primary goals with CLOUD Projects is to educate our participants in as many facets of international development projects as possible – the right way is rarely the easy way, and we will always do whatever it takes, regardless of how difficult it may be

… and difficult it was. I believe it was more confusion that anything else.  I mean, really… what’s the difference?  I understand what you’re saying but like, it’s just a Frisbee.

As we walked to the site where we would begin cooperative construction on an innovative plastic bottle housing project, a young boy and his friends were playing with a toy truck… and it wasn’t a Tonka from Amazon.  And it wasn’t powered by batteries and a remote control.  It was a toy truck pieced together from an old plastic refugee relief food container, a few sticks and what I believe were old plastic bottle caps for wheels. It was powered by good ol’ fashioned elbow grease.  And a big ol’ stick.  And they were having more fun than any 8 year old I’ve ever seen with a Frisbee.

Suddenly, everything made sense.  I looked at the group and smiled.  The group looked at me and tried to fight back their tears.  That evening we had some time to reflect: one felt “silly” and “embarrassed” for not thinking from someone else’s perspective.  Another felt “selfish” for trying to impose. A third thought she should have known better and spoke of some self-reflection throughout the day: despite being proudly anti-consumerist, even she had fallen victim. Vince was happy he was allowed to drive the truck.  I assured the group that there was absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.  They were in the early stages of learning more from the IPD community than they would have ever imagined.  This, after all, is one of the CLOUD Project differentiators – we are 50% project based and 50% experience based.  Education is a priority.  Alongside the great work we do with our partner communities, we provide an opportunity to experience something that one would not otherwise have an opportunity to experience.  This was one of those experiences we will take with us for the rest of their lives.

In the end… it wasn’t just a Frisbee.  If it was just a Frisbee, we would have had a fun lunch break teaching the kids how to throw a strange looking circular disk, which for me, behaves more like a misfired weapon on a crowded beach.  Instead, it was an unforgettable learning experience of lifetime.


Jay Mahoney

Founder and President – The New World Community