In the past few years we’ve heard a lot about storytelling as a tool for grantwriters. Telling stories involves characters, and who are those characters but the people an organization helps? Yet, hand in hand with that idea is a concern for the dignity and privacy of the people our organizations assist.
This isn’t a new issue. Newly on the fundraising staff of United Way in Seattle in 1978, I had a long discussion with the director of a sheltered workshop about United Way tours. It was common to try to take people from employee groups to United Way agencies during the campaign. This director characterized the tours as a form of “handicapism.” The tours, to his thinking, did nothing but put the people working in the sheltered workshop on display. Frankly, I had to agree that there was an element of that behind the idea of taking people on tours of United Way agencies. But tours were also a way of helping people see and understand programs in the community that they might otherwise know existed.
That discussion has stayed with me, and I’ve keep it in mind whenever I make a site visit now as a funder with a private foundation. Grantwriters, and their organizations, have to balance the dignity and privacy of the people they work with and the need to talk about their work. But there are also times when the people they work with want, and need, to step forward and be heard. And helping someone do that can mean just as much to dignity and growth as privacy. Along that line, I received the following from Gayle Tice, a freelance writer who attended the recent PSGA Annual Conference, with thoughts on that topic. With her permission, I’d like to share her thoughts.
by Gayle Tice
As someone who has been served by the work of a wonderful nonprofit organization, and attributes much of her current success and self-esteem to it, I want to say that the biggest capital “I” Impact that organization had on me came from asking me to speak on its behalf. As staff in the nonprofit sector you may feel that you should not inconvenience those you serve by asking them to help you. Their lives are hard enough, you might think. You may even be concerned about offending them, making them think that you want to hold their sensitive situation out to the world for your gain.
But isn’t it also possible that it could be their gain? No matter what your mission may be, you are likely serving populations that do not have much social or economic power. Your clients probably would not be asked to make keynote addresses. They probably do not often hear: “I think you have a valuable perspective and I would like your permission to share it.”
As a high school student, when I was first asked to speak on behalf of my school’s branch of Communities In Schools, I was terrified. I tended to view myself as a bundle of problems that could not possibly have the authority to speak. But I was also intrigued. So I said yes. They kept asking, which told me I must have done something right. And I spoke on their behalf for years. I spoke in front of grant panels, and I spoke to representatives in government. I even got a quote published on their website, a personal favorite since I like seeing my name in print.
Instead of calling me a bundle of problems, a potential statistic, a low grade, or a list of missing assignments, they called my perspective valuable. Instead of simply lowering a hand in my direction to help me out of a tough position, they did that and then asked me to walk beside them. They asked me to help define and communicate their value. And inside that framework I found mine.
If I were to sum up the mission of most nonprofits into a single phrase, it would be the pursuit of human dignity and the respect of life. Why not let those you serve help you define where you fall within that phrase? Who can better communicate what your impact is than the people you impact? Communities In Schools never put me out by asking me to speak on their behalf. They simply made me their equal.
They empowered me in the best way possible, making me see that I did not have to suffer in silence, making me see that I could act on my concerns for this world. They turned a bundle of problems into a partner. They made an impact that will never leave me. They made me consider how I can move that impact outward.
When I think about what I want to do with my life, I start there. I think about what they did for me every day.
Gayle Tice, a graduate of The Evergreen State College, is a freelance writer living in Seattle. She is also a prospect researcher with Deacon Consulting. She can be contacted at https://www.linkedin.com/in/gayletice