I’m writing this from Orange County airport, held up by weather from getting to Chicago, where tomorrow we are scheduled to make the major decisions related to the story below. I know the Grant Committee would covet your prayers…
Last week, I felt caught in some vortex. I spent much of the week plowing through twenty-eight project proposals submitted to the Innovation Fund. It was emotionally draining, at times difficult to psych up or even pray up to start again. The very first proposal I read was about child trafficking on the Haitian/Dominican border, an area I visited just last autumn, targeting Haitian refugee children just like those we met on our vision trip. The next day my first read was, unbelievably, about child sacrifice in northern Uganda, or more accurately about robbing living children of their organs–which causes death, painful horrible death–in 90% of the victims. A supporting study from another organization included bone-chilling quotes from an organ robber, the customer of a witch doctor who “places orders” and uses these body parts, and a rare survivor who told his story. I wanted to crawl into a hole, but in order to keep on schedule I had to get through 5-6 more proposals after that, as my role was to write an executive summary and analysis of each one for the donor committee who will award the winners.
The goal of the Innovation Fund is not simply to identify and address specific, horrific social issues, but to identify innovative new solutions to these intractable problems; and my task is to help the Grant Committee determine which are the most important new ideas and those most transferable to other contexts. So whereas the normal person is able to be moved by a specific need or location and support a program which might address that need effectively, we have to temper our emotional response to the specific need and find the “best overall investments.” Without question, this makes it difficult to do my job–I feel a very human or humane urge to sit and weep, to plant a flag on these dark corners of the globe and rally support to bring light and hope to that place, to those specific children. That urge makes my usual daily work of connecting needs and donors very rewarding, and it’s often the key to supporters finding great meaning in their giving: There is a specific place where I’m making a specific difference in addressing a significant issue. We all need that–me included!
But, for the sake of other people and other needy places, we sometimes also need to look beyond those horizons to people we can’t yet “see” in our mind. If we want to increase the pace and the effectiveness of poverty alleviation and its myriad related issues and evils, a portion of our attention and our investing of time, talent, and treasure must look with clear eyes of vision into new ways to address as-yet-unsolved issues and to find faster, better, less expensive ways to impact more people quicker, people whose lives surely hang in the balance, too.
It’s a HUGE privilege to be in this situation. Clearly, the Innovation Fund and our call for concept papers has struck a chord and “unearthed” some of the risk-takers and the courageous among World Vision field staff around the globe. Of these 28 proposals, surely half or more are worthy of funding today. Yet with the amount of money we have currently, we’ll be lucky to be able to underwrite 3-5. What will happen to the rest? I now feel the burden of having in effect raised expectations, given hope to staff and national offices. They’ve perhaps been chew-boning on these ideas I’m reviewing for years, or perhaps only a few months, having been newly spurred to creativity by the possibility of money actually being available to carry out a dream that turns a old problem into a new opportunity, turns it on its head, or leveraging new realities.
They are in effect eagerly volunteering to be risk-taskers, which means facing the very real possibility of “failure.” More and more often (this year is Round 3 of submissions), the papers carry a plan to disseminate “lessons learnt” whether the innovation works or doesn’t work, an attitude of learning faster–even from our “failures”–in order to succeed faster. Attempting more, to learn faster, to get better faster–that’s been the key to Silicon Valley’s success, and the success of our most relevant industries. And turning the fear of failure into an eagerness to try and to learn was perhaps the most important attitude shift (a.k.a. “software”) needed to open those floodgates of creativity.
A few years ago a colleague frustrated me greatly. I was looking for ways to “feed the winners and starve the losers” in allocating funds to some existing projects. But he protested paternalistically, “We have to feed all our children.” It sounded so sappy, so egalitarian, as though “fairness” was the most important virtue, trumping even our stewardship of resources to help the most people. His argument didn’t carry the day, and I’m glad it didn’t.
But I’ve got an odd sense of the same feeling right now with these 28 proposals. There are several in here that are very strong and deeply meaningful, but some don’t really fit our unique criteria of being a “test”, or widely replicable, or highly innovative. They’ll simply save real lives and rescue real children in real need. And they DESERVE to be funded.
And I don’t know what to do about it. I can’t rescue every child. But I have to do something.
These were the feelings inside me as I woke up early last Saturday, my back hurting, to face the task again. I felt I’d be wise to first do my morning stretches and spiritual readings. Nothing seemed to “stick”, but the last devotional I read started with the statement that St. Francis used to spend whole nights praying the same prayer: “Who are you, O God? And who am I?…”
When I was done reading I still felt heavy, so I dropped to my knees and slumped over the couch. It was then that St. Francis’ prayer came to mind and I prayed: “Lord, in light of this heavy task in front of me, Who are you, O God? And who am I?”
And a beautiful thing happened. God seemed to immediately answer: I am the one who doesn’t just read about these disturbing subjects. I witness them. I’m there when children are abused, sickened, sacrificed. I live with this reality every minute of every day. I know the name of the every victim and those who hurt. I know them as much as I know your name, know where you are as you pray and how you feel right now.
It was such a mercy for me. A dialog continued, or perhaps an internal recalibration, where I was reminded not only that I do not carry this burden, but I cannot carry it. I am not capable. I am not able. And I am not required.
I am required to do my bit, to the best of my ability, and only my bit. And leave the rest, and the results, to God, the only One capable to carry such a burden.
It feels that somehow when the Innovation Fund sent out the Call for Concept Papers it was as if we yelled into a deep cavern waiting to hear an opposite and equal force echo back. But instead, a legion of voices erupted back at us from the blackness of the cavern, an overwhelming force that knocked me off my feet. What kind of Pandora’s Box had we opened from the depths of despair, voiced by those colleagues eager to make an assault on Mount Doom, armed only with a Frodo’s sword?
But the word of the Lord, the sword of the Lord, came to me, calmed me down, put me –thanks be to God — back in my place. In light of this mountain before me, Who are you, O God? And who am I?
Now perhaps I understand why St. Francis might pray this all night long. Yes, perhaps he was open to hearing a new word from God, of not taking for granted his understanding of the Holy. But more than that, it’s a beautiful tool for being reminded where I fit and where God fits in the constellation of time and eternity, of remembering who I am not, and more importantly, who God is.