Don’t rush into solutions – spend time listening to the local church and the local community first, to identify what the real needs are. You may visit and decide the community needs A, B and C, but careful, sensitive and humble discussion with the local people may reveal the true needs are X, Y and Z. Visit and build relationships before you start any kind of project.
In some cultures, if you turn up and offer to do a project, it’s simply polite for people to say yes, even if they don’t want or need it: they don’t want to offend you. Show equal respect by listening first, and make sure any work you do in and with the community is needed and worthwhile.
Put yourself in their shoes: what would your reaction be if a group of foreigners turned up at your church with no knowledge of your local community’s needs and started telling you what you should do? Build some humility into your plans and listen.
Be honest with yourself about your hopes and aspirations: have you already decided what you want to do ‘for’ this community? Would you be willing to change your mind if it turned out that a need you haven’t thought of proved to be greater? To address the real needs may require this kind of flexibility.
Don’t let your vision overwhelm your local church partner: make sure that they have the human capacity, as well as the funding, to implement the project without it excessively distracting or consuming the church’s energy.
Make sure any project you embark on is sustainable and can continue when your funding comes to an end. For example, a western government built a splendid hospital in a developing country but the local community and authorities couldn’t afford to staff or maintain it, so it remained unused. Similarly, you may want to build an orphanage, but how sustainable will it be?
Be aware of the risk that your funding could create dependency at the receiving end: if you’re supplying equipment, can the local church afford to maintain or replace it? If you’re paying someone’s salary, what will they do if you have to cease your funding? If you make people financially dependent on you, and then withdraw your funding, you may leave them poorer.
Relationships come first
Westerners tend to be task-oriented, but in some other cultures relationship is more important. If you’re taking a team to do a practical project, don’t be so desperate to complete the task that you put strain on the host community or harm relationships. It may be difficult when you see physical poverty and feel compelled to ‘solve’ it, but in many places the most important thing you leave behind will not be the building but the relationship.
Be sensitive to local culture and thinking. For example, in some cultures if you install a water pump, people will regard it as yours, not theirs, and if it breaks down they’ll assume it’s your responsibility to repair or replace it. Ensure that issues of ownership and responsibility are resolved at the outset.
Beware of letting money create an unequal power relationship between you and your partner church or leader – for example, what is the size of your financial gift in comparison with the church’s local income?