Skin in the Game

Adapted from A Field Guide to Becoming Whole, 113-115.

One of the most challenging elements of any poverty alleviation effort is identifying people who are truly ready to change. 

If the goal of poverty alleviation is spirit-led transformation—seeing people restored to who God created them to be—it’s important for us to recognize that sustainable, long-term change has to include a person’s willingness to change.

If a man your church or ministry is walking with does not believe that change is truly possible for him, it will be very difficult to move forward in developmental ministry together with him. People vary widely in their receptivity to change and have many reasons why they may not be ready. For example, he may not believe that he is primarily responsible for making changes in his life, may be unwilling to go through the pain of change, or might be wrestling with the impacts of trauma in his life. 

As we listen and learn from those we walk alongside, these barriers may become clear, but there is no “magic formula” for identifying change-readiness. One approach that often helps is to invite buy-in to a plan of action. All ministry stakeholders—including the people in material poverty who participate in ministry programs—should have “skin in the game” for the process of development. 

When people are contributing their own time, money, or other resources to a project, this helps measure degree of enthusiasm and drive to pursue goals. When it costs people to participate in something, they are more likely to say no to something they don’t really want and to stick with what they do. People are usually unwilling to contribute to things they don’t really embrace.

Everyone Can Contribute

This principle holds true even for those in extremely vulnerable and impoverished communities. For example, when the Chalmers Center trains churches in the Majority World to start microfinance ministries, we charge participants something to be trained. The amount they pay covers only a nominal fraction of the cost of the training, but that doesn’t matter. It would be okay if they contributed a chicken’s foot as long as they were giving up something that is valuable to them!

Similarly, when a woman has been consistently asking your church for financial assistance, helping her complete an action plan that asks her to commit to taking specific steps to achieve her own goals can serve two purposes. 1) It can increase her sense of ownership in her own pathway forward, and 2) it can help the church diagnose how serious she is about making positive changes. Your church may agree to provide appropriate support, encouragement, and accountability to complement her efforts as she works through her plan.

Contribution as Participation

Asking someone to contribute to their own development isn’t just a good metric for their buy-in. It’s also an important part of moving the whole ministry process in a participatory direction.

By inviting the people your church or ministry works with into co-ownership of the process of transformation the Lord is leading you both through, you’re setting the stage for building trust and learning and growing together for the long haul.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, or even unkind, at first, asking for mutual contribution toward goals and training is an excellent way to affirm the dignity of those in material poverty and keep the god-complexes of those with more material and social resources at bay.

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center helps God’s people rethink poverty and respond with practical biblical principles so that all are restored to flourishing.

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