What I Learned in Rotary Today—25 June 2015

by Glenn on June 27, 2015

Thoughts from Central East Portland Rotary Club meeting on Thursday, 25 June 2015.
Guest Speaker: Rob Lucke, ShelterBox

We’ve had a couple of speakers talk to us on the subject of Nepal. It’s a little uncomfortable enjoying a wonderful, Elmer’s breakfast as we go through our preliminaries and then listening to a speaker talk about Nepal as our excellent server tops off my coffee, to which I add a little cream. I guess a worse situation would be going through life totally unaware of the situation in Nepal. Or, actually being Nepalese and walking through this difficult time.

Our speaker was Rob Lucke,  a fellow Rotarian who came to talk to us about ShelterBox, the first project partner of Rotary International. He is an ambassador for ShelterBox. This is volunteer work for him.

The idea of ShelterBox is simple. When someone somewhere loses a home as a result of a natural disaster, ShelterBox provides a highly engineered, 135-pound box full of essentials for safety from the elements.

The box looks like this:

Inside, it is crammed with the following:

Our speaker is an engineer, so he talked about the constant effort to refine and improve, especially, the tent, which is rated to handle 100+ mile-per-hour winds, has a ventilation system and is temperature-rated to well over 100 degrees and below -0.

I didn’t take notes this week, but my memory of facts includes the following:
1. A ShelterBox kit costs about $1,000.
2. ShelterBox is an all-volunteer organization, which is part of the reason it is highly rated by Charity Navigator. (Our speaker noted one of the quirks of a volunteer group is that there is the inefficiency of trying to get people together outside of other commitments and there can be a “herding cats” aspect of organizations like this.)
3. ShelterBox kits are tweaked for the environment in which they will be used.

Our club has donated funds to ShelterBox.


On my way to work following the presentation, I had two thoughts. One was how absolutely normal my life seems. Aside from the fact that Portland, Oregon is experiencing an unusually dry and warm start of summer following an unusually dry and warm spring, I have air conditioning in my car and in our business and my basic needs are met. I am not suffering. I’m glad there are people who have put their minds to the task of alleviating suffering. And I’m happy to have contributed, in a very small way, to the cause.

My other thought was about the economics of all of this. The statement was made that ShelterBox is “all-volunteer,” but then it was noted there were some paid coordinators around the world. And then there’s the basic fact that these kits do have a cost. I got to thinking about the idea that I am being encouraged to donate to provide a shelter*, but the fact that there is a cost to a ShelterBox kit means that somewhere along the line (design, marketing and web, materials, assembly, shipping, for example) someone benefits financially. I suppose it’s possible that only expenses are being met so that say, for example, an airliner agreed to ship a plane load of ShelterBoxes somewhere at cost. Well, the airline’s cost includes someone to load/unload and fly the plane as well as fuel for the plane so someone is receiving a financial benefit (or at least is not losing in the transaction).

I’m sure there is an economic model for thinking about all of this. My point is that ShelterBox is a perfectly good enterprise. It’s needful. It isn’t wasteful. It alleviates human misery.

But I am fascinated by how doing that good is an expense for some people, but an income for others.

Since this could sound like I am critical of ShelterBox, I will share the analogy my father-in-law used when he and I were trying to sort this through.

He said he has known people who have concluded the purpose of their life is to help the poor. So they’ve come to him to say, “Will you, business owner, give me money, so that I can do the work of helping the poor?” They’ve given him their budget, which includes an income and benefits (as this person while wanting to help the poor didn’t want to actually, you know, be poor themselves—I get it, neither would I), and they may or may not convey the idea that they are morally superior for wanting to help the poor while he, the business owner, is clearly lesser for having the primary interest of making money. And there’s that little bit of—is it irony?—that the only reason the person can contemplate helping the poor is that there is a business owner who can help fund it.

This is fascinating to me.

Some things seem clear:

1. From the Biblical perspective, this is a fallen world and bad things happen to people.

2. Resources are not distributed equally around the world. Self reliance isn’t always possible for those to whom bad things happen.

3. The impulse to help others is a perfect good.

4. Actually helping people is even better.

5. The ability to help others is complicated by the fact that nothing is equal in this world. (No moral judgment implied. Sometimes things are not equal for perfectly understandable reasons, sometimes things are not equal because of injustice.)

6. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to get help to people in need. Or even agreement on what that help should be.

7. Some people are in a better position than others to help.

8. Who should pay to help and who should be paid to help is a difficult question to think through.


*We’re in the realm of thought experiment, now. I did contribute through our club to ShelterBox. There were matching funds involved, which felt responsible. This is not meant as criticism of this or any organization. This is my effort to understand the world of economics a little better.