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Reciprocity in charitable giving should be honored

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[Editor’s note: This is the first of two column’s by Craig White, a staff member at the Center for Participatory Change in Asheville, N.C., a partner in the NCGives effort to broaden conversations about giving in North Carolina.]

By Craig White

All giving is reciprocal.

That idea shook up my organization, the Center for Participatory Change, and shifted the way that we think and talk about our work.

Before we really thought about it, we had placed ourselves in the typical, top-down “vertical-giving’ picture: Foundations help nonprofits, nonprofits help their clients.

But then we started exploring more deeply the giving done by the grassroots organizations the Center supports, most of which are rooted in low-income communities, and include a broad spectrum of Western North Carolina people — Latino, African-American, Hmong, Cherokee, Appalachian.

Talking with them about “giving,” we heard about the many rich, complex ways that people improve their communities — volunteering at the community center; making food for fundraising events; organizing an immigrants’ rights rally; watching the neighbor’s children; sharing food from the community garden; starting a cooperative to create new jobs; burial associations, baby-sitting co-ops, youth mentoring programs, elder care. The list goes on and on.

This kind of giving — sometimes called ‘horizontal giving’ — is reciprocal by nature.

It doesn’t carry the labels of “donor” and “recipient” that are seen in traditional charity or philanthropy because people in the network are both giving and receiving on a regular basis.

Since then, we have come to believe that all giving is reciprocal; the reciprocity just isn’t honored.

In traditional charitable giving, the stress is put upon the material benefits obtained by the recipient — especially money — and the intangible benefits that the donor receives are largely dismissed or taken for granted.

We realized that pattern doesn’t reflect our values because it denies the resourcefulness of the recipient, while reinforcing, rather than questioning, the privileged status that allows the donor to be a donor.

Now, when we introduce the Center for Participatory Change to a new potential partner, we don’t just talk about what we have to offer that group, in the way of organizational support, leadership development, capacity-building and small grants.

We also talk about what we get out of our partnerships — learning opportunities; stories for our newsletters, fundraising letters and grant proposals; new friendships that cross the lines of race, class and culture; and the chance to be part of a broader movement that is building a just and equitable society.

And for us, part of that movement toward justice and equality is learning to name the benefits that we get from any giving relationship, and honoring that reciprocity.


Craig White works as a staff member at the Center for Participatory Change in Asheville, N.C., one of the partners in the NCGives effort to broaden conversations about giving in North Carolina.

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