‘It’s Got to Be More Than a Handout’: A Charity’s Innovative Approach

In charity work, the numbers aren’t everything. Meals and shelter can be provided—and those are good—but as our guest today says, the goal needs to be more. In addition to offering short-term relief, charity needs to help people get back on their feet and become self-sufficient. How? Rachel sat down recently with James Whitford to ask that question. James directs a nonprofit called Watered Gardens, which aims to lift its participants out of poverty. We’ll share their conversation.

We also cover the following stories:

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is finally pulling the trigger and sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate.
  • President Donald Trump says he’ll be diverting another $7.2 billion to build the border wall.
  • Iran has made arrests following the downing of a Ukrainian airliner last week by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which killed all 176 passengers. 

Read a lightly edited transcript of our interview with James Whitford, posted below, or listen on the podcast:

The Daily Signal podcast is available on Ricochet, Apple PodcastsPippaGoogle Play, or Stitcher. All of our podcasts can be found at DailySignal.com/podcasts. If you like what you hear, please leave a review. You can also leave us a message at 202-608-6205 or write us at [email protected]. Enjoy the show!

Rachel del Guidice: We’re joined today on The Daily Signal Podcast by James Whitford. He’s the executive director of Watered Gardens, an organization that serves the poor and homeless. James, thank you so much for being with us today.

James Whitford: Thanks, Rachel. Great to be here.

del Guidice: So just to kick us off, to get started, can you tell us a little bit about your organization Watered Gardens, and why your organization was founded?

Whitford: Sure. My wife and I co-founded Watered Gardens in 2000, so it’s been about 20 years now. And it just started out of compassion. So we had our faith in Christ and our heart for people and wanting to put that to work. And so we began a small little outreach center that has grown over the years, and of course along the way we’ve learned a lot as well.

del Guidice: So in your organization, you just kicked off an initiative called True Charity, where you spend time talking about the problem charities commonly face, where they tend to value outputs rather than outcomes. Can you tell us more about that and why you started this initiative in the first place?

Whitford: Well, sure. So I think just going back to the idea of learning curves along the way in mission work and realizing that there are some competitive models out there that needs are being met but people aren’t actually being really helped. They’re not being empowered.

And one of the things that we talk about in True Charity is that at some point in our compassionate care for people, challenge is needed.

If we’re going to help people move from relief to development, if we want to get them out of the trap of cyclic relief, we’re going to have to implement challenge at some point to really help people grow and develop.

But when you have charity out there—it could be state-funded charity, it could be other types of charity—where there’s no challenge at all, it’s just a low-hanging fruit, then missions like mine that know how to empower people and want to do that, it becomes harder for us.

And so what do we do? Well, we launched an initiative called the True Charity Initiative just to help leaders begin to rethink what charity really should look like and that it’s got to be more than a handout. And one of those components, which you just touched on, is this idea that we need to quit measuring just outputs but also outcomes, which are more important.

This is the impact that we’re having in the lives of people and families that we’re serving beyond just the number of meals that we served or how much we gave away.

del Guidice: In one of these videos highlighting the True Charity Initiative, you mentioned that if you really want to help the poor and if charities really want to help the poor, we need to ask ourselves the question, “What are we hoping for in the long run or what is this long-term goal?” Why do you think charities have lost sight of this goal? It seems many of them have.

Whitford: Well, I think it feels good to meet a need. And so that’s what happens at the transactional counter of a charity and people coming in, or maybe it’s a church or some agency, but there’s a need being expressed and we see it. And then we want to meet that need and we feel good about it. And then we call it quits. That’s the end of that.

But we’ve got to be asking the question, “What are we really hoping for in the long run?” Someone can come in and say, “I’m hungry.” And we can say, “Well, we want to feed you.” But is that what we’re really hoping for in the long run?

So we’ve got to be thinking about the bigger picture of, how are we doing with helping people get back to work? How are we doing in helping people reconnect with their family or to establish new and healthy connections in their community? So there are outcomes that we’ve got to look for in our charity work.

del Guidice: In your organization, you’ve also highlighted that nonprofits as well as government help agencies often measure their success by what they give rather than the lives that they change. And so I’m curious, in your vast experience working in your organization, how does your organization have a vision to fix this specifically?

Whitford: Well, it really is the expansion of our True Charity Initiative. And so True Charity came out of this [and] we were beating our heads against a wall trying to figure out, “Gosh, how is it that we can help a community get better at really empowering the poor?” And so we launched this initiative and we think that we need to communicate those principles really nationally.

We want to help organizations, nonprofits, churches, and charities across the nation rethink what charity really is. We’ve got to go beyond just good intentions. We’ve got to couple our good heart, our compassion with a wise thought. And when we begin to do that, it’s going to look differently.

We’re not going to just feel good about giving something away. We’re not just going to be counting output. We’re really going to want to measure our long-term impact with people and the families that we’re serving.

del Guidice: One of the practical programs that your organization does offer is something called a “Worth Shop” that teaches residents about your program, about work, how they can build room and board, sell things. I want to hear about that, though. Can you tell us about this program and how you use it to value what you’re doing instead of the things that you’re giving away?

Whitford: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I read a book called “Toxic Charity” by an author, Robert Lupton, and in it he talks about five steps to dependency.

He says if you give something to somebody once, they’ll have an appreciation for it. If you give it to them again, they’ll have an anticipation you’ll do it a third time. If you give it a third time, they’ll have an expectation. A fourth time, they’ll feel entitled. And a fifth time, they’ll be dependent on you for it. So, five steps to dependency: appreciation, anticipation, expectation, entitlement, and dependency.

Well, we were seeing that. So we were guilty of that in those first years of our ministry. And [we thought] that we’ve got to change that somehow, and realized that we were not valuing or esteeming the person as a person of capacity and potential and ability. We were caught up in that trap of seeing only the need or the broken part of the person.

Well, we switched our model and we began what we call a Worth Shop. We call it a Worth Shop because we believe that work awakens worth in people’s lives.

So now, whether it’s for clothing or food or even a meal ticket for the evening or a night of shelter, people are crafting goods, [going] to market in our Worth Shop so they can earn things they need.

The beauty of that is that they become partners in our mission. They’re not just the recipients of someone’s benevolence. And so value and worth and dignity are awakened in that individual. And we think that it’s one of the reasons why we have such a good outcome with employment.

We all want to see people go to work. But if you want to see people go to work, our suggestion is you start with it. There’s no reason why people who are able to do something shouldn’t do something for what it is that they need.

del Guidice: It sounds like you’ve essentially found a really successful way to have people who are part of your program be involved, actually take ownership so that they don’t have to stay involved, in a sense.

Whitford: Absolutely. A person needs to realize that they have the capacity to create and to do and to produce and to earn. And once you learn, “Hey, I’ve got the ability to earn my way,” that’s an incredibly dignifying feeling. And it launches a person from there into employment and independence.

del Guidice: So James, your organization, Watered Gardens, they also offer a program called Project Worth where you provide the homeless with ways to be creative and build a craft. I know this is probably tied to what we were just talking about, but are there any differences there between Project Worth and the Worth Shop? And how does that also work together?

Whitford: The Worth Shop is just … a building and it’s a part of one of our campuses of ministry where all of that work is happening. Project Worth is the principle, the philosophy behind that. And so it could be a community garden, it could be some other social enterprise, but it’s the idea that work awakens worth and we want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to test a person’s ability to help themselves before we just jump in and offer that help.

And that’s where we’re missing it nationwide right now really is we might see a person, we might feel sorry for them, and we might offer some help, but we’re not testing that individual to see what they can do for themselves. And that’s something we’ve got to start doing if we’re really going to empower people and help them elevate themselves out of poverty.

del Guidice: You also have an incredible outreach that’s called Forge and this outreach is to homeless men and it helps them find and develop virtue and a strong work ethic. And what else does Forge do? Can you tell us about it? And have you seen specific results in some of the men that you’ve worked with through this program?

Whitford: Sure. Well, this is our Center for Virtue and Work. It’s a long-term program where men are going in through a number of different phases.

So there’s a service phase where they’re working alongside partners and our employees and our mission, so they have a specific role. Then they move into an education phase where they go through classes like government and legal living, stewardship and economics, seven steps to Christian maturity. So there are different classes that they’re a part of.

Then they go into a work readiness phase where they’re going through computer literacy training and mock interviews, resume writing, soft skill development, and they’re learning about their own value of work that they can offer to a company to improve the company’s value.

So we go through a lot of stuff like that before they then launch into a work internship where they’re actually going to work with partner employers in our city.

The exciting thing about this is that all of these men who come into the program give up all government assistance, so they’re making a big decision to take a more difficult and more challenging road that leads to independence and flourishing. And there are many great stories to share with you. Maybe I could just share one real quickly.

There was a guy who came in, tall man, mid-30s, shaking, addicted, living on the streets, wanted to talk about getting into the program. His name was John.

And so John had, at that point, food stamps. He had an early SSI disability check and subsidized housing, but he was not a healthy or happy individual and he really wanted to get into the program.

We told him, “You have to give all that up if you want to come into this program.” And he did. He actually gave it up. In fact, later on, he said one of the most difficult decisions of his entire life was giving up that government package, he called it to come into Forge.

But he had had a very bad life as a kid and certainly the state had seen him as irreparably broken and forevermore a charity case. But John today is an over-the-road truck driver, completely independent and on no government subsidy at all.

And so it’s a great story of how we can be pulled in one direction, but, boy, if we can grab folks out of that and head them in the right direction. John’s a good example.

del Guidice: Wow, that is an incredible story, James. Thank you so much for sharing that. So you mentioned that the people, the men who get involved in Forge, they have to give up all government assistance. And you’d also mentioned to me that Watered Gardens has actually never received public funding and that your guiding documents say that you are committed never to receive any kind of public funding. Why has Watered Gardens taken this stand and why is it so important?

Whitford: Well, for a number of reasons, but No. 1, we are $22 trillion in debt. And looking at the 2019 federal budget, it was about $996 billion that was designated to go and help the poor in our country today. And so I don’t think we can afford public-funded solutions any longer. We’re going to have to find ways to do things from a local, privately-funded level. And so we’re committed to that.

But also, organizations that are taking a lot of government money are government dependent and typically produce people who are also government dependent. And we want to help people move away from government support to flourish as independent individuals. And so if we’re asking them to do that, we need to do that as well. So we’re committed to private funding.

We think that charity, if it’s true charity, Rachel, it’s going to be because there are people who say, “You know what? I want to help right here in my community.” And they’re willing to give. But we would not think true charity to be something that is funded through taxpayer dollars. Some taxpayer paying for something that they don’t even know about is not a charitable thing.

del Guidice: That’s a powerful stand that you all take. Thank you so much for sharing that.

A common thread that we often see in society a lot with those who are homeless is addiction as well as mental health issues. And I’m curious, does Watered Gardens address these specific struggles in any way that these homeless people tend to face in the outreach that all of you give?

Whitford: Well, sure. And it’s important to understand that when we talk about mental health problems there’s a great gradation of that, right?

So severe, severe mental health problems when we’re talking about schizophrenia and things, we’re going to have to refer some of our clients on. There are others that will respond to lay counseling and do very well. So there’s a large wide array of mental health issues.

Addiction as well. Of course, we offer a recovery program and so there are different things that we do for addiction, but some people may need truly hospitalized treatment for that.

I think more importantly is to understand, why is all this happening? I mean, we have 553,000 homeless people and a lot of them are struggling with addiction and mental health issues. And I think it’s important that we look at the pathology that’s under the diagnosis, right?

We’ve got a diagnosis of homelessness or poverty, but what’s the cause, what’s going on? And it really is a breakdown of the American family.

… We’re seeing family torn apart or [that] leaves children that are neglected or abused that then grow up and end up with severe mental health or addiction issues on the streets and maybe at missions like mine. And so we have to really think about, what are we doing in our society today to strengthen the family unit? And are there things that we’re doing that are dividing the family?

And again, back to the idea of a paternal state that’s “caring for the poor” often creates a disincentive for families to stay together. In fact, let me share one quick story with you.

I met a young man named Seth sitting in our mission. I didn’t know who he was. I just went down, sat down, was having a meal with him, talking with him about what was going on and why he was here. He was a resident at that point in our mission. And he said, “Well, I went to an agency and they told me that if I was homeless for a particular period of time, maybe I would qualify for subsidized housing.”

So he at that point was living with his mom and his grandmother, was pulled away from them to come and be at the mission so that he might qualify for federal housing.

And so there is an example and there are many of those where when we lend these big government grants in our community and we cast a net to try to find people to then fill the seats, it actually creates a perverse incentive that divides family ties and community ties that are vital for civil society today.

del Guidice: Your organization is receiving the 2019 World News Group Hope Award for your effective work that you’ve been doing. Can you tell us a little bit about the award and why you were chosen to receive it? Also, congratulations, that’s so awesome.

Whitford: Thanks for that. I don’t know a whole lot about the award other than there’s a nice financial gift that comes with it. But I know that World News Group looked at hundreds of nonprofits—I think they’re all privately funded—and went through whatever evaluation they do. And we ended up winning that award this year. And yeah, it’s quite an honor to receive this. And so I’m very, very honored.

It’s a team of people. We have hundreds of volunteers that are really giving a great significant portion of their lives at our mission, a great staff. And it’s really because of their great work that I’m here to receive that award this week.

del Guidice: You mentioned the story of John and a few other short stories. I’m just curious, are there any other specific stories of people who have come through your program and that specifically impacted and that have honestly encouraged you to continue on in the work?

Whitford: One of the first names that comes to mind is Jocelyn. Jocelyn was a needle drug addict living on the streets for years and, in fact, was on Skid Row at one point living in a cardboard box, ended up in Southwest Missouri. Things didn’t go any better.

She ended up at our mission because she had 400 community service hours to do so she had gotten in a lot of trouble and this was the only way she was going to pay whatever the fine was.

During that time at our mission doing community service, she came to faith in Christ and life began to change for her and she actually ended up going back to school. She got clean, went back to school, got a college degree, [and] went on [to get] her master’s degree in counseling and social work.

[She] came back to the mission [and] is now full-time employed at our mission, which was her dream ever since she had come to faith at our mission. She said, “I want to work here someday.” And so she actually got a college degree and is now employed with us.

One of the unique things about Jocelyn was a time when she was on a local interview, it was a televised interview and they were interviewing people who had given up food stamps, and she said, “I need to let you know that giving up food stamps was harder for me than getting off of heroin.” And it was an amazing statement, but it’s one, Rachel, that we have found to be true for many people.

There is an incredible fear factor of cutting the ties when you’re tethered to the state for support and then understanding your own capacity and potential beyond that tie. But Jocelyn did it and she’s flourishing today as a result.

del Guidice: Thank you so much for sharing Jocelyn’s story. We need to spread that far and wide and just talk about these actual results that you all are seeing. That’s incredible.

So we’ve talked about the emphasis that you place on outcomes rather than outputs, which is the antithesis to what so many in government see as they push more agencies and programs to fix problems. So … if you could say something to legislators, what would be your message to them to encourage them to fix this problem rather than being caught up in it?

Whitford: The word that comes to mind is “enough,” but that’s not probably constructive encouragement. But truly, I think what we’ve got to do [is] let’s work together. I would like to work with leaders that do what I do and missions across America. See if we could get together, let’s get together at the table with some policymakers and say, “OK, what can we really do to restore civil society, to make sure that we’re empowering the poor?”

And I think what we’ll find is that it would be good if policy just withdrew some of that lower-hanging fruit of welfare and government subsidy for the poor and local communities and allowed local communities to network together well, and to do that job themselves before people are accessing state help. So that would be the one thing I would recommend.

del Guidice: Well, James, thank you so much for being with us today in studio on The Daily Signal Podcast.

Whitford: Thanks for having me.