Teach a Man to Fish

By Rima Kamal

November 21, 2018 

A cliché to be sure, but it is directly relevant to grant making. Most everyone has heard some version of the story that is often attributed to a Chinese folk tale. In this story, a poor man comes across a fisherman just returned from his fishing expedition with a basket full of freshly caught fish. The poor man begs for a fish, which the fisherman refuses. Instead, he takes the poor man to the stream and teaches him how to catch his own fish. The moral of the story is “give a man a fish, and he eats for one day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

Grant makers and donors want to help people out in desperate conditions—victims of war or a disaster, the hungry and the sick—and will give money to deal with that emergency. Once the immediate need passes, more contributions tend to dwindle and dry up. There are many reasons that donors (and analysts) have given for this behavior—donor fatigue, simple loss of interest, “new” disasters that require a response—among others.

There are situations or conditions that tend to hold the interest of donors, motivating them to continue their contributions for longer periods. Projects that demonstrate an impact beyond the immediate need—sometimes expressed as “sustainability”—both attract and retain donors at a higher level. The fisherman’s fable is a simplified version of this. Obviously, teaching the poor man to fish, to feed himself any time he is hungry, possibly feed his family as well, and learn a skill that he can pass on to others (making them capable of fending for themselves), shows impact, sustainability and longevity. The “donor’s dollar” in this case went far beyond the cost of a single fish!