Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Giving Tuesday, the Advance, and Kickstarter

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

Let me begin this post by encouraging you to donate to the UMC's global work on this Giving Tuesday.  I'll even put the link here for you to do so.  In fact, do that now, before you read the rest of this article.  If you want to encourage others to donate as well, both the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) have resources to assist in that.

Now that you've donated, I want to talk to you about the Advance, which is the system through which individual donations to denominational projects of the UMC are collected.  The Advance is in many ways a fantastic system.  100% of donations go right to those projects; there's no overhead taken out.  The system has been around since 1948, having proven to be a durable model.  Over 3 million gifts totaling more than $1 billion have been given through the Advance.

The way the Advance works is that donors look up the individual project(s) they want to give to and direct money specifically to that project/those projects.  There's even a handy search interface that allows donors to search by missionary, region, type of work, population, or disaster.  Donors can also give to general needs for either GBGM or UMCOR.

This approach to giving has a lot in common with Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which have become popular sites for facilitating an approach to collecting donations and raising money known as "crowdfunding."  Yes, that's right, the UMC was crowd-funding through the Advance 60 years before it became popular.

Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the Advance all have the great advantage that they're a democratic approach to deciding what gets funded.  If people want a Veronica Mars movie or a Tesla museum and are willing to help pay for it, they happen.  If people want wells and toilets in Liberia and are willing to help pay for them, they get built.

But here's where the analogy breaks down. Kickstarter and Indiegogo help fund things that will (presumably) benefit the people donating. Donors get to choose the ways in which they want to benefit.  With the Advance, it's largely Americans choose what will benefit people elsewhere around the world.  People don't get to choose what will benefit them. It's a little bit like if Bolivians were allowed to decide whether or not there would be a Veronica Mars movie or a Tesla museum.

That doesn't mean that Americans always make bad decisions or that Americans shouldn't donate to the UMC's work elsewhere around the world, but it does put people elsewhere around the world at the mercy of American donors, which creates a power inequality.  There are many inequalities in how the UMC is structured and operated, but this inequality in donation money is an important one to notice because it shapes other inequalities.  So, on this Giving Tuesday, donate, but donate and be aware of how your donations shape the UMC.

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