We have a problem in this country with the idea of a class system.
Please indulge me the time to paint a picture of the backdrop against which many of us work but don’t often acknowledge. I will then use that backdrop to illustrate the challenge of discussing work that is funded by one group (donors), executed by another group (staff), on behalf of a third group (families) and how that discussion has the potential to harm the people it is intended to help.
We have a problem in this country with the idea of a class system. We like to pretend we don’t have such a system, except for when we want to describe groups, especially groups served by agencies that work for justice. We have a philanthropic class that supports agencies that serve families in lower socioeconomic income groups, or other marginalized groups typically characterized as some version of disadvantaged, living below the poverty level, poor, minority, minoritized, or _____ (insert your favorite pejorative adjective here).
Our boards and our leaders often don’t look like or have the same experiences as the people our agencies serve. The American philanthropic sector is one where, as Burton and Barnes so eloquently put it in “Shifting Philanthropy from Charity to Justice,” “often well-intentioned people make decisions for communities they do not come from, may not understand, rarely interact with, and almost never set foot in.”
Let me layer on top of that troubling foundation two theories, and even though you’ve heard of these, you may not be aware they are actual theories, taught in schools and reinforced… everywhere. I’m speaking of the Bootstrap Theory and the Theory of the Deserving Poor and the Undeserving Poor.
The bootstrap theory is baked into our country’s history. It is the foundation of the American Dream: Anyone from anywhere can come to America and pull themselves up by their bootstraps to make a better life.
Is it true that the bootstrap theory is real for many families? Yes! Do I hear some of you yelling at your screens that your grandparents did just that? I hear you and I believe they did. Mine did too. Yet the American Dream is inextricably interwoven with its less appreciated counterpart: privilege. Unfortunately, this term is often taken out of context and inaccurately understood as meaning “freedom from struggle.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Every family has struggled, and most people work hard. The distinction of privilege is the breaks you get or don’t get along the way because of things that have nothing to do with you, your dreams, or your abilities, and have everything to do with what other people see and perceive about you. The distinction is the obstacles placed or removed from your path and the chances and choices other people will give you or take away based on things they believe about you that have nothing to do with you at all.
Let’s layer on top of that of this country’s acceptance of the sharp delineation between the “undeserving” poor and the “deserving” poor. That delineation is the basis for much of our public policy. It’s what underlies the decision regarding whether the homeless veteran with a history of addiction and crime gets housing or whether the family who just got evicted because of medical bills does. It’s why we have a shelter and transitional housing system instead of a robust and available permanent housing system. It is less expensive to create affordable housing than a three-layer system of shelters, transitional housing, and affordable housing, each layer staffed by paid staff working to move people into permanent housing.
Why don’t we just start with permanent housing? I submit we’re unwilling to defend housing for the long-term homeless addicted veteran over the newly evicted family, even as the Coalition for the Homeless notes, “numerous research studies have consistently confirmed that long-term housing assistance not only successfully reduces homelessness—it is also less expensive than shelter and other institutional care.”
Lest you think that’s all the delineation between the deserving and underserving poor entails, it’s also the idea of creating an extensive (and expensive) bureaucracy to make sure that the poor don’t take advantage of a system ostensibly designed to help them, even though this overladen structure costs multiples more than it would to fund what the people actually need, which we’re still funding in part but with fewer resources and much less dignity. Most services for those in need are set up on the assumption that people cheat. To combat that assumption, we have entire bureaucracies dedicated to make people prove they need assistance. We insist people prostrate themselves to defend their needs and jump through arbitrary hoops to get assistance. I submit a subset of the population will find a way to take advantage of any system that is created. That doesn’t mean we need to build systems that alienate the many to protect against the few. We could, and I believe should, set up systems to mitigate cheating while affirming dignity.
“Deserving” and “undeserving” is about blame. (Cue the bootstrap theory.) The policies that follow in the wake of these two theories set up the families we serve to receive pity but not empathy. Help but not respect. Services but not dignity.
Are there groups who are more deserving and groups who are less? Should that determine who gets services and who doesn’t? Does it impact who gets that house and who doesn’t? As I tell my classes, it always comes down to “What’s the goal?” and “Who decides?”
These two ways of framing the world also set agencies up to tell unflattering stories about the deficits of our families—or worse, exploitive ones to pull at the heartstrings of donors, to make them feel good about their magnanimity while illustrating that donors and recipients are not the same. There are people you can help, but they’re obviously not your people. They’re fundamentally different. There’s them, and there’s us. Us who have worked hard, who deserve where we landed and can now give back to those who… well… didn’t.
It’s an inaccurate story.
Lest you think I’m exaggerating to make a point, I received a letter recently from an organization saying that the children they serve “have no role models in the house.” Does that honor the dignity of their families? Is it even true? It doesn’t, and it’s not.
This letter is not an anomaly: I receive lots of similar letters from a variety of service providers. I might have even written some of them before I understood and could articulate the difference between honoring the families we serve, and not. I bet you have too. Nor is this attitude limited to donor outreach. Many years ago, I received a call from a woman who wanted to bring her kids down to my organization so they could see how “other people” live. I said no. Now you may think I missed an opportunity to engage someone, and you would be right. But I didn’t miss a teachable moment to share that a trip to another community is not a trip to the zoo. (Those might have been the words I used; I’d figured it out by then.)
Taking your kids to see how “other people” (read: not us) live sends a message both to your kids and to the people living in that community. Saying that kids “don’t have good role models” is disrespectful. Many families are doing the best they can for their kids and would be appalled if they saw that letter or met someone who was only there to see how “other people” live.
If you wouldn’t want your families to see what you allow in an appeal letter or what you’d say to a visitor or allow the visitor to do—and that should be one of your lenses—then don’t say it, and don’t do it. Moreover, the chances of such a letter alienating some of your donors (me, for one) is high. We all know that disengaged donors are not going to call us to explain; they’re just going to stop supporting us. After receiving the letter about “role models,” I did call.
If you who are in leadership positions are of a different faith, gender, or race than the majority of the families your agency serves—or if you are joining our sector from the business or government sector—I implore you to tread carefully. We ought never to be perceived as exploiting the people our organizations exist to serve. It’s disrespectful to them; it’s destructive to our agencies.
I invite you to read “How Can Nonprofits Move from Exploitative Storytelling to Justice-Oriented Storytelling?” by Dr. Debra Jenkins. We cannot, we should not—and please join me in saying—we will not exploit our families to engage our donors. It’s not acceptable. It’s not reasonable. It’s not necessary. It complicates our ability as social justice and nonprofit leaders to honor the people in our community and their lives. It is critically important that the messaging you use does not reinforce either the bootstrap theory or the theory of the deserving and the undeserving poor.
Finally, I will share that I worry that our focus on donors sometimes comes at the expense of our families. That’s not the intent, but it may be the result. Our agencies do not exist to serve donors. We should embrace our donors and invite them to partner with us to make our communities better, but we can never forget that nonprofits exist to improve our communities. The mission and those we serve must always be our primary focus.
Those of us who work for social justice can never contribute to the narrative that there are the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. We cannot reinforce the bootstrap theory. We can talk with our donors about the difference between theory and reality and about how to build on the assets our communities already have. We can hold those assets up as being worthy and deserving. To do anything less is unjust. We must tell stories that honor the dignity of our families and embrace our donors, as we work together toward creating a more equitable and just world for all.
Dani Robbins is the Director of Nonprofit Administration programs at John Carroll University. After serving in the nonprofit arena for over 25 years, primarily in executive leadership positions for social justice agencies, she has ascended to what she considers her dream job and the continuation of her life’s work: advancing social justice.
Her education includes an MA in public administration from the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, and a BA from Kent State University. She is also a graduate of Leadership Akron Class 22 and of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s Advanced Leadership Program offered in conjunction with the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.
Robbins founded and still leads Non Profit Evolution, a consulting firm dedicated to building capacity, board governance, and organizational development in small- to mid-sized nonprofit organizations. She has served as the chief executive of two domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers, as well as two Boys & Girls Clubs. She introduced the Women’s Coalition—the prelude to the Women’s Center—at Case Western Reserve University. In 2006, Dani received the Vision and Spirit Award by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and in 2019, she was included as a Notable Women in Nonprofits by Crain’s Cleveland Business. She is the author of a blog on issues relating to nonprofit organizations, and the co-author, with Maureen Metcalf, of the Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives. Dani is also a speaker and a trainer, a former instructor at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, and a former fundraising coach for Network for Good.
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