We want to know that our money went to “the right place.” We have been taught to be fearful that our donations might aid corruption or not be used in the way we had intended. As such, it’s easier for us to build buildings than invest time in people through things like trainings and education programs.
If we fund a building, we can see it and touch it and know that our money went where we had intended it to go.
But what are we missing when we invest only in things we can put our name on?
We are missing out on investing in real change.
The changes we say that we want to see in the world—in health, education, the environment, and in all of the social ills plaguing our schools, families, and our planet—cannot be fixed by investing in things. More schools, more bed nets, more health centers, more books, and more school uniforms are not going to solve these problems, no matter how many we give away.
We can’t emblazon our name on a person’s forehead the way we can on a hospital building: Funded by the Smith Family. Investing in people isn’t as rewarding in the short term – you don’t see a space turn from empty to full, a building go up brick by brick, or books lining shelves. But, as we fill people with knowledge and skills, connect them to the ideas and resources they need to make the changes they want to see in the world, and create opportunities that didn’t exist before, we start to fill the real voids we have in the world: people with the skills and passion to go out and make the changes they believe in.
We made this mistake at PEPY. We came to Cambodia and built a school, thinking that a new building would improve education, not realizing that a safe space is only the tip of the iceberg of what is needed to improve the quality of education in a place. The rest has to do with human beings. We need a revolution of philanthropy. We need fewer people donating to build a well with their name on it or to build empty schools and health centers with beautiful plaques hanging on the walls, and more people supporting educational opportunities for people to learn the skills and bring in the income to solve their problems on their own. I’ve invested in the wrong things many times and I’ve seen what it takes to make changes. I know now: buildings don’t change lives. PEOPLE do. So rather than writing our names on more buildings, let’s get out our tattoo pens and start investing in people to change the world.
by Daniela Papi Thorton