Unless we’re born wealthy, most people see themselves moving from poor to rich. That’s part of the American Dream. Anybody can make it with hard work and luck. Poor to rich also describes the way money flows, or doesn’t. I think there’s a lot of potential to move things the other way, from rich to poor. No reason for it all to only go one way.
If you read my previous post you already know that I spent time helping at the Global Social Entrepreneurial Competition, a student business competition hosted by the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. Why do these things require so many syllables? Despite the long title the idea is simple. Can students sold the world’s problems? Well, of course they can, but most wait until they dive into their careers before taking on global issues like health care and poverty. GSEC makes it easier for them to start working now. I’m particularly pleased because this year two of my favorites won awards: Sanergy which tackles sanitation and energy, and Wello which makes it easier for people to get water.
One of the joys of retirement, or at least not being tied to a regular work week, is donating my time to such events. In proper fashion, the hosts conducted a feedback survey. Amongst a dozen or two questions they asked what I got out of the event. One of my responses was hope. It is impressive to see passion pointed at a problem coupled with pragmatic solutions.
The question made me realize that something was missing this time.
Recalling previous competitions, I realized that the businesses fell into three camps:
- Selling things to poor people so they could live healthier or spend less,
- Beginning businesses that allowed them to sell to each other, and
- Establishing businesses for them that let them sell to the rest of the world.
More concisely the businesses were rich-to-poor, poor-to-poor, and poor-to-rich.
The greatest reduction of the gap between rich and poor, even without a business plan, is for money to flow from the rich to the poor. That’s been the basis of many charities, and is usually called donations. Unfortunately it is not readily sustainable. Large portions of fundraising budgets are devoted to raising funds precisely because the money flow is not self-sustaining. A few years ago, one of the GSEC companies, Kaite, was formed around the idea of Zimbabwe locals producing and selling soaps and oils made from native plants. The poor were selling to the rich. Some friends help run a business in Uganda called Bead for Life that produces jewelry from colorful recycled paper. The business is successful enough that the hundreds of bead makers are now able to build and own their houses. The business supports thousands of people. Money flows to people that can benefit from it greatly without using up local resources or diverting funds through innumerable intermediaries.
Which money transfer method is more efficient: traditional charity or local business? The business option, especially when the locals own it, is better for self-esteem. And I suspect that managing retail sales is more money efficient than fundraising.
Charities need other things than just money. A common mantra from some charities is, “Don’t give just us your money. Give us your time. It’s valuable too.” I spent three hours this morning clearing invasive holly trees from a land trust property. Whidbey Camano Land Trust definitely wanted volunteers for such grunt work. Grunting occurred. Scratches happen. Money wouldn’t make the problem go away. They need money too, but sometimes volunteer labor is handier though harder to find, especially on a frosty morning in February.
For me, balancing life and money hasn’t meant making a pile of dough and then lounging for decades. While I’d like to have more money, and have plenty of charities and initiatives that I’d like to fund, I am as likely to give my time as I am my money.
I do spend money. The way I invest and spend my money can be done in ways that help others, helps myself, and helps the planet.
I don’t buy much jewelry. I bought two of the necklaces basically for the fun of it. Jewelry isn’t my style. But I do buy local for wine, soap, tea, veggies, meat, liquor, and enough other stuff that there’s no reason to lengthen this list. Whidbey Island has a diverse set of talented artists so even regular household items like rugs, glassware, cups, and cutting boards are local functional art pieces instead of mass-produced chunks of plastic.
So, here’s the fun part. Maybe a good way to contribute is to go shopping.
Shopping and consumerism are sometimes advocated as ways to spur the economy, but blindly buying brand name products isn’t nearly as efficient as spending a little more time to find something handmade, unique, and possibly a bit more expensive that puts money into the hands of an individual instead of the coffers of a corporation.
As money flows from rich-to-poor, people can flow from poor to, well, at least less poor. Look again at Bead for Life. Their motto is, “Eradicating Poverty One Bead at a Time.” People buying jewelry have resulted in thousands of improved lives and hundreds of homeowners. A business succeeded where charities hadn’t. Are the beadmakers poor? Poverty is relative. They are less poor than they were before. Are they rich? Maybe they aren’t buying condos in downtown Seattle, but you know that parts of their lives are richer than our culture.
The divide between rich and poor is most extreme when comparing “western civilization” with rural Africa and rural India, but there is poverty in America, and throughout the world. If nothing else, starving artists exist in every society. There is a lot of opportunity to go good and have fun doing it.
Poverty exists and charities are fighting it, but it can be somewhat alleviated by letting Americans do what so many Americans do well, go shopping. The American Dream, to rise from poor to rich, and while we’re at it, reach out and bring others along. That’s a very rich idea.