On Dignifying the People You Serve

Friday, April 1, 2011 (All day)

Does it help or hurt when leaders of community organizations plead poverty or publicize that they are “struggling” to make ends meet?

We’ve all seen various versions of the newspaper stories or heard the appeals on radio or television. “We’re on the brink of closing down and all the needy [insert: seniors, homeless, mentally ill, disabled, etc.] we serve will end up on the street.” Few stories grab a headline quicker. But does that story produce the desired effect? Does an anxious appeal bring more money to an organization’s coffers?

If a nonprofit operates on the principle that success in addressing a cause attracts donors, it seems that pointing out how near the doors have come to shutting might just provoke a prospective contributor to pause before writing a check.

Broadcasting dire circumstances raises the specter of imminent failure. Who wants to put good money into a faltering organization? Advertising distress implies that something’s wrong internally that will take more than money to fix. Somebody didn’t plan ahead, or watch the books, or make a strong case, or manage expenses, or…or…or. Those sorts of alarm bells go off in response to desperate messaging.

Publicly posturing for donations with “hey, we’ve gotten ourselves in quite a financial fix” doesn’t quite cut it at a purely professional level. Reaching the point where resorting to such tactics becomes necessary at all seems to shame the sacred compact a community organization makes with the people it presumes to serve. So here’s a thought: If circumstances have led your organization to the place where you’re about to call a press conference and plead for donations, pause a moment and put yourself in the place of the people you have pledged to serve. Would they honestly sanction you standing up on their behalf, confessing failure and begging for handouts? In virtually every case, I would venture, the answer would be no.

Step back from the microphone. Search for the self-respect you lost somewhere along the way. You’ll find it eventually. You assumed your leadership role in the first place because you cared about the people you serve. Remember what dignity felt like when it was fully yours. Now go own it again.