A trip to the emergency room. An unexpected death in the family. The loss of a job.
It’s moments like these that people often turn to crowdfunding websites, hoping friends, strangers, and neighbors will hear their story and respond with aid. Sometimes, people do. And once the goal is met, the page comes down.
But there are many needs that never make it on these pages. Needs that are urgent but go unnoticed or unspoken. It’s here that Common Change UK shows up.
Common Change UK is is a charitable organization that helps distribute money. But before it’s an organization, it’s a network of groups giving together. And unlike crowdfunding websites like GoFundMe, which raise money for a specific need, Common Change UK “is about the practice and the discipline and the accountability that comes with just giving,” Matt Wilson, who chairs the organization, said.
The organization originated from the U.S.-based Common Change, which was co-founded by Darin Petersen and Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne. Petersen still leads the organization in the U.S. The UK version formed when people from the United Kingdom joined and began to encounter issues routing funds through the states-based nonprofit. Wilson volunteered to help the organization get established as a charity in the UK and, somewhere along the way, he “ended up accidentally becoming the chair.”
Through Common Change UK, people are able to form a group with friends and neighbors. Each person in the group determines how much they are able to give on a regular basis and together, they watch the pot grow. But the goal isn’t for the funds to accumulate, Wilson stresses, it’s to distribute them out. Through the app, members share needs they’ve heard of in their community. Maybe there’s a musician who needs a new keyboard or a new parent in need of baby clothes. The group collectively determines the amount necessary to meet the need and then directs the funds or items needed to that person.
“Rather than a crowdfunder going in one direction, it can be distributed in many directions again and again,” Wilson said. “There should be a life to it that involves looking, listening, reflecting together on where the needs are and then collectively pooling the wisdom around, ‘OK, is this a good thing to use our resources for?’”
The act of collective giving draws on Biblical roots.
“That’s part of the way that God’s economics is designed to work, that kind of a pay-it-forward reciprocity: Freely you have received, freely give. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” Wilson said. “It’s not very radical compared to what the early church would do. It is just leaning into that heritage a bit and saying, ‘Rather than our economic lives being completely individualized, let’s have a little bit of sharing, a little bit of overlap, a little bit of accountability”
It’s this element of freely sharing and freely receiving that also sets Common Change UK apart from its crowdfunding neighbors. By giving through a community pot, Common Change UK challenges the problematic components of giving and receiving. When a person is given money directly from another person, they may feel personally obligated to repay them in a way that isn’t helpful, Wilson said. But if they’re given financial support from a fund created to support the community as needed, the unidentified source prevents the individual from feeling indebted to someone.
Instead of asking for payment in return, they take a “pay it forward approach,” Wilson said. “If in the future you come into a situation where you’re in a much better position and you get an opportunity to show kindness, just go ahead.”
But they’re also in the business of educating people about healthy giving practices. They have begun hosting lunch hour Zoom conversations which they call the “Common Good Canteen.” In February, they talked about why we should not use the word “deserving” when it comes to determining needs.
These lunch conversations turn into more than thought experiments. The lessons learned become actively applied to group decision-making, such as removing the word “deserving” when discussing needs perceived in the community. But that doesn’t mean those conversations are always easy, especially when there are multiple needs presented.
“British people’s first instinct [is] just to be fair,” Wilson said. “They just say, ‘OK, well, the fair thing to do would be to give them all 50 pounds and give them all an equal share of the pot. But actually that’s a cop-out, we’ve not really thought it through properly if we do that.”
Instead, groups practice a principle called “one-degree of separation,” which means that a person in the group has to be able to advocate for the recipient. The relational element ensures that too much money isn’t going out, Wilson said. And the app will ping the group if too much money is accumulating. In time, the groups just begin to find a system that works, he said.
In the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated need across the UK. A teacher in one of the local primary schools where Wilson lives noticed that during the holiday season, the children who relied on school lunches for meals were going without food. The group decided to use the money they had pooled to purchase grocery packs for about 12 families that the school identified as being particularly at risk. It was a moment where Common Change UK genuinely intervened at a moment when people were going hungry, Wilson said.
The value of having an organization like Common Change UK is evident. But getting people to join can be a challenge.
“I think it is counter-cultural in the sense that people don’t want to talk about money, and don’t necessarily see that as being part of their life that they want to share with others,” Wilson said. “I think in the Christian community, we’re still too hooked into what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about ‘don’t let the right hand know what the left hand is doing,’ rather than looking at the Book of Acts and the way that they had a radical accountability to one another for that giving.”
What is clear, Wilson said, is that the Bible teaches us to not accumulate. “Common Change helps us do that.”
Christina Colón | April 23, 2021
Christina Colón is a writer, editor and digital strategist. Her work has appeared in Sojourners and Global Press Journal.