Activism and charity have been transformed in the digital era. As Black Lives Matter protests across the US and globe coordinated over social media, mutual aid groups organized online to deliver neighborhood-level assistance for the COVID-19 pandemic. My own hometown in the rural American Midwest borrowed organizing techniques from mutual aid groups in Brooklyn, who in turn had adopted them from London.

These are only the most recent instances of new, global forms of organizing. Over the last 20 years, more than 10,000 new NGOs have been established in the US to do relief and development work overseas. These are voluntary efforts that operate on slim budgets and fly beneath the radar of USAID and big-budget INGOs. The individuals who start these groups typically have a tie to a less-developed country through tourism, work travel, immigration, or adoption. Thanks to cheap flights, money transfer apps, and mobile phones, they no longer need to “wait for World Vision to get there,” as one grassroots INGO leader told me, but can work directly with partners abroad.

Their small-scale, privately funded organizations replace formal development expertise with personal action. But doing development as a personal charity has consequences for the communities that receive aid and the Americans who give it. Grassroots INGOs are insulated from the pressures that professionalized INGOs face to demonstrate their results and to create projects that can be replicated. And “thinking small” does not avoid all of the problems of private aid. Grassroots INGOs struggle to raise funds, to be accountable to clients, and to integrate themselves into the communities they serve. While they rouse the compassion of Americans, these groups tend to depict development as a problem of individual mobility, which allows supporters to ignore structural challenges like trade, climate change, and political institutions.

Amateurs without Borders shows the aspirations and limits of personal compassion on a global scale.

Read the full article about grassroots international NGOs by Allison Schnable at Stanford Social Innovation Review.