I recently held a fundraiser for my organization, Living Media, during which, along with the other activities of the evening I gave my typical slideshow presentation on what we do in LMi and why everyone listening should support them. After the program, as people were leaving, I had one woman come up to me and tell me how refreshing it was to see a slideshow that actually showed people working and actively getting involved in community development. She remarked how it’s not “typically what you’d expect from a charity type organization.” Although I cringe anytime the word “charity” is applied to my organization, I knew what she meant and I was glad that someone noticed. I was encouraged that our marketing was notably different than those that typically ask for donations to help people. It was especially nice because this was a woman who I know hadn’t read my blog and hadn’t really kept up with our organization before this night. So I knew that her comments were purely based on what she’d seen that night, which was nothing more than art, music, and people coming together to celebrate some beautiful things that are happening in Haiti and learning how to grow the beauty in those things. No pity, no guilt, no begging. No “for the cost of one cup of coffee,” no “donate or children die,” no “you can be a hero and change the world.” Sure, if I used those tactics, maybe my organization would be raking in the donations a lot faster, because those tactics work. That nonprofit that I wrote about a couple weeks ago brings in over $1 billion in donations every year. But what is the true cost of a human being’s dignity?
I’m on my way back to Haiti right now and I know that when I get down there I will have to defend myself to my Haitian staff for doing the marketing the way I do again. When we are struggling to fund some of our core programs it’s sometimes easy for even our Haitian staff to want to throw in the towel and resort to whatever lengths necessary to bring in the bucks. So then I’ll tell them, “Okay, go put on your dirtiest, poorest looking clothes, rip some holes in them if you can, and gather around all of your younger siblings, and cousins (we’ll call them siblings) and have them put on their crappiest clothes, or even better, just bring them naked. And we’ll go to the driest, saddest place we can find and take photos of you all frowning. Then we’ll tell everyone how miserable you are, and how you need saving because your lives are in danger. Oh, and then we’ll inflate some Bible verse with a sense of duty so people know that they’re disappointing Jesus if they don’t donate. That’ll work great at Christmastime because no one wants to disappoint Baby Jesus.” Doesn’t sound like such a good idea now, does it? Figuring out better solutions for representing those intended to benefit from our programs may take more time and we may have to go through some rough patches in funding because of it, but I still hold on to the belief that it’s worth it in the end. And my staff usually agrees with me when they look at the possible consequences of taking the easy pity route instead. They may not always be there to hear the comments like the ones from the woman at the fundraiser, but they always choose to be known as the talented, hard-working Haitians with tons of potential rather than the poor needy Haitians to be felt sorry for. When given the choice, wouldn’t we all choose the prior for ourselves?
Unfortunately too many people in this world aren’t given a choice. They’re told by nonprofits “We’re going to help you, but we need to share your story with the people who can help us help you.” So they get their photos taken and they tell their stories, the most pathetic parts of which get quoted in the brochures and on the websites. That’s the lucky ones anyway. The unlucky ones get their photos taken by photographers hired by the organization to swoop in and snap shots without ever knowing the subjects but they might grab a couple words from a language they don’t understand, but just assume the gist is always that they’re crying out for help. I know because I’ve made money by being that photographer before. The good photographers pass on only the dignified images to the organization and permanently delete any others from their memory cards that could get misused at the subject’s expense. The good photographers only see beauty, whether through tragedy or celebration, but don’t even search for the pitiful and miserable that some nonprofits look to make money off of. It’s true that often people in poverty face extremely difficult circumstances, but the good photographers and the good nonprofit managers and the good marketing directors see the people behind the misery and they find ways to portray their vast potential as humans rather than their circumstantial misery.
I did an art show once of my own work where a woman came up to me at the reception and said to me, “I like the work, but how come you never paint about the starvation?” Because that’s exactly what you would expect, isn’t it. But as I’ve said before, as an artist my job is to do exactly the opposite of whatever is expected. This is why I think more artists should become nonprofit managers. If we really want our world to change than we have to be willing to change our expectations and redefine the accepted limits between us all as fellow human beings. The “Feed the World” “Help the Children” and “Save the Poor” organizations have been trying to fix the world for ages and made very little change. If we want our outcomes to change than we have to change our methods and that begins in the way we view those we share this planet with.
Maybe I’m repeating myself with all this. But maybe what I’m saying is worth repeating. Now at the end of another year maybe I can hope that next year brings something different to talk about. It’s time to be different.