This morning I had a conversation with a friend, a dentist who is preparing to go on his first missions trip. He expects that he will be called upon to perform dental extractions in the poor community where his team will be ministering. During our conversation he expressed his desire to extend the reach of his contribution. Even before he goes, he realizes that unless he deliberately thinks and acts strategically, the value he adds to the community will be only to relieve some individuals’ pain. He desires to do more. He asked me if it is reasonable to think about a longer range strategy, something like setting up a clinic and training some local people who could perform the most basic dental procedures.

During the ensuing conversation we arrived at three important conclusions:

1. He wants to invest in something that will bring real positive change for the community.

2. Real change will come when the local people are able to help each other in a way that is sustainable.

3. Sustainable positive change will require humble inquiry, strategic thinking, and a long-term commitment.

We also noted a couple warnings:

1. My friend should work to not undermine the local economy. For example, he should attempt to not extract any teeth that would otherwise be taken care of locally. He should endeavor to only help those who are doomed to suffer if he doesn’t help them.

2. He should not, even inadvertently, stifle local initiative. He should look for and enable local people who are attempting to bring positive change. How can he help their efforts become effective and sustainable?

I am delighted that more and more people are thinking like this. It has been too long that, with the best of intentions, our philanthropic efforts have fallen short. Often our efforts to help actually hurt the people who suffer most.