Many of us saw the story earlier this month about the pregnant lady panhandling in San Diego. After her shift was over, she was seen getting into a Mercedes Benz and driving away with, presumably, her boyfriend or husband. There was a significant amount of outrage online, as many people said a variant of “this is why you should never give money to help the poor.” If you missed the story, you can see it here.
I decided to avoid writing about this topic for a while, choosing instead to ponder how I could respond appropriately. Certainly I can understand the feeling of betrayal or being duped after giving money in good faith and feeling as though you have donated to something that is other than what you thought. Actually, this happens every day. Caring donors give money to people, organizations or causes because they think that the money is being used one way, only to find out later that it was not used as they expected.
In the small nonprofit organization, we have to be ever vigilant in communicating to people about how their investment in our work will be used. There has never been a time in history when transparency has been more critical to overall organizational advancement and success. There is no shortage of tools that we can use, whether it is a website, annual report, social media, or other donor communication. People need to feel as though they can trust organizations in whom they invest, and we must prove ourselves to be worthy of that trust.
It is also important that we communicate to donors and prospects that things are not always as they seem. I don’t know the story behind this woman in the Mercedes, but we must be slow to judge before getting all the facts. Did this Mercedes belong to a friend who was simply giving her a ride? Perhaps she had to panhandle in front of stores because she was going through a divorce or job loss and she had no income. I don’t know the situation.
A wise man, Dr. Perry Bell, told me a story a few years back that has stuck with me. Perry is a pastor in rural Weld County and he told the story of a woman who sought help at a holiday food distribution sponsored by his church. While he was there helping people, a woman showed up to receive food. As he was helping her out to her car, he noticed that he was loading donated food into a very nice late-model Lexus. He didn’t say anything about it, but he did take notice. After they finished loading the items, the lady thanked Perry and started to tell her story. She had lost her job and had been unable to find another for several months. She mentioned that she was facing loss of her home, due to her inability to pay for it. She said “you see this Lexus? I am 3 months behind on the payments, it is just a matter of time before they come to repossess it.”
Sometimes we are unable to see the whole picture. As we seek to effectively raise money in small (or large) organizations, we gain success by helping people to move beyond simple appearances so they can truly understand how their donations will be used in support of the mission.
Happy Thanksgiving and have a great week.