Over the Christmas holiday, I spent time visiting family in Salt Lake City, Utah. It had been several years since I’d been there and having lived in Houston since 1981, I had forgotten what cold weather feels like.
One of the things on my To Do list was to visit the Giving Machines. Last year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began an initiative that ended up being much more successful than they anticipated. The church has an extensive humanitarian program and aptly identified an obstacle in the path of individuals donating to those in need.
People in North America have two powerful tools at their disposal when it comes to financially supporting those in developing nations. The first is that we have a much higher standard of living and therefore disposable income. The second is, when considering the difference in currency exchange, a US dollar converts into many more dollar equivalents in other nation’s local currency. Basically, the second advantage greatly multiplies the benefit of the first. So even a modest $20 donation made here translates into much more than $20 of value in many developing nations.
But many of these countries don’t have the checks and balances that we’re accustomed to in this nation. The question for many potential donors is…how will I know that the money I donate will actually get to the person it was intended for, and that is a very valid concern. The Church wisely partnered with recognized, well established world organizations like CARE and UNICEF. So, when donations are made, the Church transmits the order and funds to these partner organizations and they assure proper in-country delivery.
Even though there are likely many here who would contribute if they could, the difficulty has been there is no easy mechanism for people in this country to donate money in small amounts to needy people in other countries.
In 2017 the Church came up with a very ingenious method to remove the obstacles from the process.
They chose a common vending machine as the vehicle with which donors interact. These “Giving Machines” as they’re called work basically the same way. You go to the machine, select what you want to buy or donate and swipe your card. You then enter the item number on the keypad and a small placard representing the item falls into the bottom of the machine. A detailed receipt suitable for a charitable deduction on taxes is printed out. It’s that simple.
Additionally, rather than sending money to those in need, specific physical items that are highly valued by the recipient are pre-selected and donors choose from among these items to purchase. This approach gives the donor control over what is being donated and is a much more personal and satisfying experience.
The machines offer 45 items to choose from that range from shoes to a sewing machine to eyeglasses to a cow. The prices range from a few dollars to $210. According to Cindy Pratt, a donation volunteer, “The most expensive item is ‘The School In A Box’ a complete education kit and supplies for a teacher and 40 students for an entire school year.”
During last year’s campaign, Michelle Nunn the CEO of the international relief organization CARE which partners with the Church on this effort said, “Instead of going to a vending machine and getting something, you’re giving something…it’s immediate, it’s sustainable, and can make a difference around the world.”
Many of the items offered in the machines have a systemic benefit. The sewing machine is a tool that allows for cottage industry, the cow gives milk, the eye glasses enhance learning and a package of fingerling fish can become an entire fish farm.
The Church also has a firm policy that 100% of funds donated to any of their humanitarian projects go to the intended recipient. The Church, therefore, uses their own funds to cover any administrative costs for delivering the items.
Diann Voordeckers, a hostess helping people with the process, noted that it’s not uncommon to have hundreds of people waiting in line for 60 to 90 minutes to use the machines. In anticipation of that, information sheets were provided so donors could preselect items for donation while waiting in line.
I asked local resident Kaylene Stevens why she came and brought her two young children. Stevens said, “Humanity is everyone in the world and if Christ was here, what would He do and how can I have that in our lives.”
Marrilyn Valenzuela and her daughter bought a volleyball and 3 sewing kits, this time. This was her third trip this year. On the first one she bought a goat and three chickens. On the second one, she chose a hygiene kit and diapers.
When the project was started during the Christmas season in 2017, the Church’s humanitarian department anticipated potential donations of about $50,000. To their great surprise, the final tally exceeded $550,000. This year they were aiming for $1,000,000 but ended up receiving donations totaling $2,309,276, a 400% increase since just last year. They received a total of 74,634 donations with the average amount of $30.94 each.
Clearly, providing a safe and effective method for people of any faith, or no faith at all, to make small donations to those in need all over the world, has been very well received.
It also confirms the basic premise that even though there is discord and conflict in our nation, there are still large numbers of people who care deeply about the plight of humanity. The fact that so many were willing to drive to the machines, find parking, wait in line and then donate generously to help strangers in faraway nations, with no expectation of reward or recognition, just because they felt moved to take action, is impressive indeed.