“Doing Good Well” – is there a Quaker Way?

Dorothy Scott, Victoria Regional Meeting

In the year 2000 I was walking through the laneways of York, trying to find my way to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. On my return to Australia, I was to take up the leadership of a large national philanthropic foundation and I wanted to learn more about how the highly respected Joseph Rowntree Foundation “did philanthropy”. Along the lanes I walked I came across a small cottage and was stopped in my tracks by a plaque on its wall.






What was between the words on the plaque spoke to my condition. I could immediately see from the date of John Woolman’s death that he had not lived to see the abolition of slavery. What does it mean to commit yourself to a vision you are unlikely to see achieved in your lifetime? That question moved me deeply. I didn’t know who John Woolman was, but I did know a little about Quakers and I resolved to find out more on my return home. And I did, and that is how I became a Quaker.

I give thanks to Joseph Rowntree, not just for indirectly starting me on the path to the Meeting House door, but also for enriching my ideas about philanthropy. The foundation he established in 1904 had a most progressive vision – “to understand the root causes of poverty”. This was a radical idea indeed in an era in which philanthropy largely focussed on the amelioration, and not the prevention, of social disadvantage, and often did so in ways that robbed poor people of their dignity.

I was impressed with how the staff of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation worked hard to maximise the potential for social research into poverty to be translated into action. Today this is called “strategic philanthropy”, but it was being practised by Quakers long before the term came into currency.

The year after I went to my first Meeting for Worship I was inspired by Mark Deasey‘s 2002 Backhouse lecture, To do Justly, and to Love Mercy: learning from Quaker Service, in which he described how Quakers had  responded to the Irish famine. Unlike other Protestant denominations, they had not sought to convert Catholics in return for assisting them. Mark Deasey recounted how Irish fishermen, who could not afford to mend their nets and so could not go to sea, were assisted by Quakers to buy new nets.

What do they say about teaching a hungry man to fish rather than giving him a fish? Interestingly, the assistance was in the form of a loan to the fishermen, not a gift, thus creating what we would today call a “revolving fund”, allowing others to be supported in a similar way. Another distinctive feature of Friends’ relief work in Ireland was the recognition of women as agents in their own right by focussing assistance specifically to them in both income-generating work and immediate relief.

Immediate relief has an important place in the history of Quaker service. Sometimes people need food, first and foremost. At the end of the First World War, Quakers fed over a million hungry German children a day. There is even a German word for what they did – “Quakerspeisung” (Quaker feeding). And it was the relationship based on dignity and respect which Quakers had established with the German people after the First World War that enabled British Quakers in 1939 to persuade the leaders of the Third Reich to allow ten thousand Jewish children to be evacuated on the Kindertransport.

These examples of Quaker philanthropy taught me four things: it is good to address the causes of suffering; it is good to give in a way that enables the recipient to become self-sufficient; there are times when it is necessary to give directly to stop suffering; and giving  must always be done in ways that offer dignity and respect to the recipients.

It is always easy to idealise our Quaker forebears – they were truly inspirational in so many ways, but we also need to have sufficient humility to learn from Quaker and other faith-inspired endeavours that may be well-intentioned, but which are less than successful.

Robert Lupton, in his book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) criticises projects that intervene by doing either what a community does not need or what it ought to be assisted in doing for itself. So, there is another lesson here – as they say in the disability sector, “nothing about us without us”. Those whom we are seeking to assist must be valued as experts in their own lives, and we need to hear and heed their voices. In our nation it has taken many years for this lesson to be learned in relation to Indigenous Australians.

Recently I have been thinking about how, as a Quaker, I should discern the way in which to “give well”. Since I was a university student I have tried to “tithe” (to give away 10% of my income). At certain times in my life this was difficult to do, and I tried to compensate by giving in kind with my labour and skills. Now retired and having the unfair advantage of not paying tax on my superannuation, it is not financially hard to give away 10% of my income, but it is hard to discern how to do this.

Should I give money to environmental causes and if so, to whom and for what, or to refugees and if so, to whom and for what, or to the peace movement and if so, to whom and for what? You see the dilemma, and it is probably the same dilemma you have.

I try to take on board the lessons from Quaker philanthropy that I have outlined above. At times my donations will be oriented to actions which are preventive, like a landmark environmental legal case. I also give ongoing support to peak bodies which can advocate for change, but there are plenty of times when the immediate needs of suffering human beings are so urgent that it is essential to give to people such as refugees money for food and medicines. I choose organisations that I believe will do this in ways that offer dignity and respect.

Another question that concerns me is how I should respond to the leadings of Friends. Once such leadings have been “tested” I believe I have an obligation to support my fellow Friends in the pursuit of their leadings. This may take the form of emotional support or spiritual support, but there are many occasions when what they need is money for the cause to which they are committed, and I try to respond accordingly.

Last, but not least, I have been thinking about how collectively Quakers might discern the best way to use our resources to promote social justice and peace, reduce suffering and care for the earth. There is no “right way” of course, but we have a moral obligation to bring to our discernment both our intellect and our compassion so we might have the most impact with the resources for which we are responsible.

Moral philosophers such as Peter Singer have been giving this serious consideration for some years. His book The Life you can Save, Acting Now to End World Poverty has been highly influential. Quakers such as American Friend Charles Schade, a retired epidemiologist, have also been thinking hard about these issues. In his article “Doing Good Well” in the Friends Journal in 2014, Charles Schade reflected on his own history of giving and discusses his concerns about “rightly ordered charitable giving”. His analysis of a sample of Quaker charitable organisations is sobering, documenting how they were wanting in effectiveness, efficiency and accountability. He concludes by posing a series of questions.

Friends, do we really know what our contributions are accomplishing in the world? How do we know we have made the best investment of charity dollars? How can we be sure we are doing good well?

Charles Schade rightly emphasises “efficiency and effectiveness” as key criteria in “doing good well”, but “rightly ordered charitable giving” must go further and ensure that what is done in the Quaker name is always based on Quaker values.

The question for us, Friends, is how does this speak to us collectively in relation to our entities such as Quaker Service Australia, the Thanksgiving Fund, various funds held by Regional Meetings and the way we honour Friends’ bequests?

Sometimes when I am in doubt about how to “do good well”, I think of the time two decades ago when I came across that little cottage in the lane in York, and I ask myself “what would John Woolman do?”



Deasey, M. Mark To do Justly, and to Love Mercy: learning from Quaker Service, Backhouse Lecture 2002.


 Singer, P. The Life you can Save, Acting Now to end world poverty. Random House 2009


Lupton, Robert D.  Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). New York. Harper One, 2011

 Schade, C. “Doing Good Well”, Friends Journal, February 2014 https://www.friendsjournal.org/private/FJ-2014-02.PDF

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