The Unintended Consequences of Giving Money

Money is one of the most welcome gifts and one of the most useful things to give people, especially those who need it. But giving money sometimes fails to help and can make things worse, a problem that requires givers ultimately to seek inspiration in knowing how to really help. I learned this lesson (once again) when my wife and I came up with what I thought was a brilliant plan to help a Chinese woman that we respect and like. She works here in Shanghai while her teenage son is in her home province, a common and sad situation for Chinese people trying to provide for their families. (There are rules here that often make it hard for a migrant worker to bring one’s family to where the jobs are.) We learned her son was coming to town for a weekend, and we wanted to help her spend some memorable, quality time with him. Our idea was to buy tickets to the Shanghai circus for both of them so they could have a positive mother-son experience enjoying something they probably could not normally afford. My wife, worried about how things might go wrong, was smart enough to ask if her son was bringing any friends, and when she learned that he was probably coming with a friend, she bought 3 tickets so all three could go together. She added a little extra for transportation and snacks.

After buying three good tickets for her, we looked forward to hearing her report of the circus visit when we had them over to visit the following day. Unfortunately, we learned that her son went to the circus with his two friends while mom selflessly stayed home that night. The money we contributed resulted in separating mother and son during a major part of the brief time he was in town–exactly the opposite of what we intended. That’s what often happens when we rely on money as a simple solution to the complex problems people have.

Sometimes a little money can work wonders. But don’t expect it to help without care, planning, and inspiration–and even then it may disappoint. Unintended consequences are far too common.

Of course, there is more to this story and more that we still don’t understand. Maybe things worked out optimally after all. Perhaps the mom, who was somewhat ill that weekend, really needed the break and was happy to just be the heroine who helped her son and friends enjoy the circus while she got some rest. Maybe the circus tickets resulted in more important ends than our unrealized intended consequences. Or maybe it was just a foolish waste of money and time. Maybe I’ll have more insight after I take my wife to Shanghai’s Circus World later this week as I plan to (if things work out). But the boys really enjoyed it.

Things never turn out just the way we imagine them, and sometimes the unintended consequences aren’t so bad. But money per se is usually not the answer. The fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to most of the challenges and pains of life. But its scope includes helping one another here and now with temporal matters, and sometimes that takes money. Thank God for the inspired and inspiring LDS welfare program and the humanitarian programs the Church runs, and thanks to all of you who have learned to carefully and prayerfully consider the best way to use your resources to help those around you. Keep it up, even if the results are disappointing sometimes.

May we all seek to make our efforts bring about more lasting good with the Lord’s help.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

2 thoughts on “The Unintended Consequences of Giving Money

  1. Jeff,

    I have no doubt your efforts were appreciated by all including the mother.
    Every year at Christmas my wife and I try to find a family that needs some help. This year we found 4, I talked with the mothers of each family to find out what they wanted. For all of them, the mothers didn’t want anything for themselves, they only asked if we could help out to make sure their kids had something Christmas morning. So we did just that, we focused our limited resources on the kids knowing that in seeing their joy the mothers would find true joy.
    For one family the mother asked for coats for her kids. After Christmas she helped the kids make a little video in their new coats to send to us as a thank you. That meant a great deal to my wife and I, but I know it meant even more to their mother.
    So just know that you did that mother a great service. To see joy in her child.

  2. I appreciated this post. I recently talked with someone who has been on the receiving end of money and in some ways, it has added to the burden that she has felt…as they try to figure out how 'best' to use the funds that they know were given with love.

    So I agree with Jeff with the idea that it's good to be careful and very prayerful in the process of giving.

    Thanks for your insights here, Jeff…even if your example ended up being a blessing all around, I think your advice is really sound.

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