nonprofit

Grandma Sloths and Donor Designations

I had a dream the other night. Okay so I have dreams every night. Wonderful, wild, bizarre and beautiful dreams. But the other night I had one that seemed pertinent enough to write about here, so I invite you to follow me down this rabbit hole for a moment because there really is a point to it all.

So I was here in Haiti, down at the Living Media center with a group of people, some Haitian, some American, and we heard a loud crash outside. I ran outside to see what had happened and noticed that a large tree had fallen, trapping an entire family of sloths underneath of it (no, there aren’t sloths in Haiti, that’s why it’s a dream). Overwhelmed by a burden to help the sloth victims, I hurried to the tree and was discovered a sense of superhuman strength which allowed me to heave the giant tree trunk off of the sloths. I threw it to the side to find a mother and a papa with four babies and one older grandma sloth all smiling up at me in appreciation. The grandma sloth had grey hair and granny glasses, yes, granny glasses, much like Sophia Patrillo’s. She was apparently quite near-sighted. She spoke to me with a frail but wise voice, thanking me for saving their lives and expressing that they wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for me. The others didn’t speak but just smiled gently while the little ones giggled and cuddled with one another. As the grandma spoke, one of the babies reached out slowly and grabbed my hand. I told them that I was happy to help and then carried them all to a different tree where they could all move on with their lives. Then I told them that I had to go because I had another activity that I had to get to but I was sure that I would see them again. They waved good-bye and I left, leaving the other humans there at the center while I hurried off to take care of some other responsibility, thinking very little of what just happened because that’s just what I do. If I see someone, or some sloth, that needs help and I have the ability to help them, I do so.

And that’s that. No big deal.

  
But then I got back from whatever it was that I was doing a couple of hours later and I found one of the Americans that was there still standing there at the center. All of the others had left but she was standing there waiting for me to get back. When I got there she said that she wanted to make a donation to Living Media and would be giving us $1,000. “That’s great!” I said, knowing how much that money could help us with our programs designed to realize our mission of helping young adults in creative educational opportunities. Then the donor told me that she was giving it to support research in the cross-breeding of sloths and beavers because maybe then sloths would be better equipped naturally to protect themselves from falling trees.

And that’s where the dream fades, or at least my recollection of it does. So I don’t know how I responded to the donor’s offer in the dream, but I know how I would be tempted to respond if it was real life. I would have smiled and thanked her for her donation and her heart for the poor sloths, but also explained clearly that I couldn’t be sure how much we could do because we are not, after all, a wildlife protection organization, or even anything close to one. Then once her donation cleared our bank accounts, I would encorage our staff to use the money to serve the people that our programs were designed to help in Living Media and cover some of our unavoidable financial needs that we’re unable to find other donations for. I would advise the money be used for what our organization and our community have agreed are top priorities from the time that we started working, knowing that the donor was clearly out of touch with the reality of why an organization like ours exists and what it exists to do within a community such as ours. Knowing that pointing out how out of touch she is would only mean losing her as a donor and making myself come off as an egotistical jerk, I would choose rather to take a path of leaving the donor in the shadows of her good intentions while using my own experience and that of our staff to make better decisions of how to use that donation. I would feel a burden to remain accountable to my local community and hold their priorities above that of the donor even if that means not sharing the entire truth with the donor. Because I know that the local community would place the cross-breeding of sloths somewhere on the priority list way after education for their children, support for their young people, business opportunities for families, but somewhere before receiving TOMS shoes and fortified meal packets and one more VBS program. So I would make sure that those top priorities are addressed first, which means focusing on people, but I would keep the sloths in the back of my mind just in case down the road we are so successful at the other things and have so much extra money that maybe we can put one of them in a cage with a beaver and a box of dark chocolates with some romantic music and see what happens.

But then a year later when that donor emails me asking for some photos of the sleavers or bealoths that we’ve bred and evaluations of their superior survival adaptations and financial reports of how it all happened, I would be screwed. I would have a clear conscious knowing that legally I didn’t do anything wrong because we never solicited any donations for sloth protection so we wouldn’t be obligated to use the funds for that purpose even if that’s what the donor requested. Legally, we would be first and foremost required to be accountable to the demographic that we were established to serve, which would be the young adults of Haiti, not the sloths in old trees, or the donors with money to give, and that original demographic would have a lot more important ways to benefit from that money than what the donor had requested. But I would still be stuck in a murky moral mire knowing that I had accepted the money based on the donors misconceptions and now I would be left to defend that decision and account for what we did with the money without alienating the donor or coming off as apathetic to the cause of the sloths.

The fact is that I love sloths. It would be awesome to have one as a pet if that were an option. I also love donors. Couldn’t live without them. But what I love even more than both of them is undesignated donations that are given without any emotions attached to them. They are what allows an organization to most effectively achieve its mission, yet they are the least likely kind of donation to be given because we all like to think that we have complete control of our money to its absolute end. We all like to think that we always know what’s best to be done with our money. I suppose it’s easy for me to see things differently as someone who’s always worked hard to earn everyone else’s money but has never had much money of my own. That’s why, despite all of that hard work, even if I choose to use $5 out of that $1,000 to eat a sandwich for myself instead of one more brick to build the sleaver habitat, then I’m the one that gets criticized as corrupt.

Yes, the sloth situation may have just been a dream, but the sad truth is that it represents all too often the reality that many, if not all, nonprofits have to continually deal with. Donors are the ones giving money that they’ve worked hard to earn, so they like to make all of the decisions of what that money should do. Meanwhile, the organizations have spent critical time and energy researching what their communities’ most urgent needs are and then they’ve invested resources in training local staff to address those needs according to their own specific abilities. And too often those two sides don’t match up. There’s a disconnect between what the donor thinks is best and what the community actually needs. And it always puzzles me why people think this is appropriate. We wouldn’t pay Nike to make us a laptop and we wouldn’t pay Ford to build us a house. And when you buy your groceries from Walmart or Whole Foods, when you hand over the payment to the cashier, you don’t leave a note for the CEO of that company of how they should spend your money. So why do we donate money to environmental organizations expecting them to send kids to school, or educational organizations expecting them to build churches, or arts organizations expecting them to feed people? Why do we donate money to an established organization with an established mission and clear methods of how to accomplish that mission and experienced boards and staffs in place to ensure that it gets carried out, but then we still try to tell them exactly how we want that money to be used? Once we pay for groceries at Walmart, we accept that that money is no longer ours, it belongs to Walmart. (Don’t send comments about how Walmart is evil, it’s simply the most universal example I can use.) But when we donate to an organization, why are we unwilling to accept that that money now belongs to that organization and trust them to do what they know is best?

Yes, I have strange dreams every night but maybe my craziest dream of all is a dream of an organization that is truly empowered and supported 100% to do what it was created to do. A dream where poor local activists and foreign wealthy donors can sit down together at the table of brotherhood without compromising their visions. I have a dream.

#Selfieblan (or How to Take Photos in Haiti)

I received a message from a reader recently who was frustrated and simply needed to vent. I maintain this invitation to any of my readers, especially those who work in the nonprofit sector: if you ever need to get something off of your chest and can’t do so publicly for fear of offending donors, volunteers, or board members, you can vent to me. I’m a good listener/reader. If you lived in the Jacmel area I’d invite you to come sit on my porch, have a beer, and complain about whatever it is that’s got you stressed. Because I understand. But for those without access to my porch, my inbox is open to you. And even if you say something that inspires a blog post on my part, I promise to keep your rants anonymous. I think that it is one of the greatest problems facing the nonprofit sector that the majority of people think that it is uncriticizable because they’re all “helping” people. The individuals who carry out the work who have the closest perspective to the situations at hand and the most real relationships to the beneficiaries and the greatest sense of understanding are silenced in an attempt to allow the people who are giving the money and making the decisions to live blindly disillusioned about whether they really truly are helping or not or helping in the most effective way. It’s a crime, really. But I digress.

Back to my reader who wrote me. She works with children’s programs in Haiti and in her rant she said, “If have one more person come down to take selfies with [the kids in our programs], I’m going to scream!” Later in the message she referred to these people as “selfieblan”, which honestly cracked me up and I call upon all of my readers to make that hashtag go viral immediately. This subject has gotten a lot of mileage lately with articles like The Onion’s, 6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture, and the Tumblr account, Humanitarians of Tinder. Some of my fellow Haiti expat bloggers have also shared personal experiences such as Jillian’s Missionary Confessions, When in Haiti Bring Your Camera, but Also Bring Your Respect. (<– Seriously, click on those if you haven’t seen them yet.) So I don’t need to repeat anything that’s already been said, but I do want to add my voice to the common cry that implores volunteers and donors who visit programs in cultures not of their own, “Quit offending local people with your photos!” It’s not that difficult. It is understood that you need to take photos to tell the story of your trip and hopefully to promote growth of the projects you’re visiting, but there’s a better way to do it with dignity for everyone involved. Especially now with the pervasiveness of social media in our lives now we need to be extra sensitive to the images that we’re sharing of others that will be out there for the world to see. So here are a few of my simple Green Mango suggestions of things to remember when you’re on a volunteer trip with your camera or smartphone in your hand.

Remember, it’s not about you.

Although modern voluntourism has become much more about the experience of the person on the trip than the benefits for the local people they are tripping to, the truth is that all of your Facebook friends already know what you look like. By simple virtue of having taken the photo, you’ve proven that you were there. You do not need to be the center of attention. Use your photos to show off the beauty of the place and the people that you are visiting. Use them to share things about this world that your Facebook friends might not already realize.

People are not Props!

Do not use local people in your photos just to make yourself look like a better White Savior. Jesus told all of the little children to come to him so that he could show them how God loves them, not so he could take a selfie with them.

from kevinwgarret on flickr

from kevinwgarret on flickr

Use photos to represent relationships.

If you won’t be able to tell anyone the names of the people in the photos with you later, then you probably don’t need to be taking their photo. If you’ve made good friends on your trips and want to remember the times you’ve enjoyed with them, then take pictures with those people. The little boy that you gave a sucker to in the street, probably not. The old woman that asked for some money to feed her kids, probably not. The cooks that made your meal every day and laughed with you when their piklies was so spicy that it made your eyes water, sure.

Ask Permission!

The fact that I even have to say this makes me ashamed of humanity. Don’t ever take someone’s picture if they don’t want you to. If you want to take pictures of vendors in the market, buy something from them first for crying out loud, then ASK if you can take their picture. If someone just walked into your place of work and started taking photos of you without any explanation, I doubt you’d be too happy either. Just ask. And if they say no, move on with your life.

Haiti 1744

A photo from my early days in Haiti. I have no idea who these half naked boys are and never saw them again.

Put yourself in their shoes.

Or in their parent’s shoes. How would you feel if a stranger came up and stuck a camera in your face? How would you feel if you knew that strangers were taking photos of your children and would be posting those photos to the internet as if they were best friends with your kids? Do you want your photo taken when you’re not feeling your best, are sad, or sick? Or just when you haven’t bathed for the day, had your coffee, are still in your pajamas? What if you had a flat tire and someone stopped to help you but before they leave they ask to take a picture to share with all of their friends? You’d know that person was just looking for a pat on the back and wasn’t really interested in helping another human who just needed help.

Make it come back to the subject.

If you’ve asked permission and they’ve agreed to let you take their picture, they’re probably doing so with the expectation that you’re going to take that photo and use it to promote programs and raise funds that will benefit them in some way. I learned to be even more specific with individual’s who ask to take photos at our organization, like at our school. If you want to take photos of our school and the kids there, then you’d sure better be sending some money back to us sometime in the future. You had better take those photos and tell everyone who sees them exactly how they can donate to us. Don’t use our programs and our participants to simply share with people about all of the need that you’ve seen. Be actively searching for ways to help satisfy those needs that you’ve seen through those photos. Otherwise the subjects just end up feeling used and exploited.

Hire a local photographer.

The first time I see a volontourist or mission team do this, I will give them the Do Gooder of the Year Award. There are people here who make a living as photographers and are able to get a lot more interesting photos than you because of their existing place within the culture. Hire one of them to join you for the week and take photos of all of your activities. You’ll be providing another local person with a job, you’ll be getting better photographs, you’ll be free to focus on the work that you’re doing and the people that you’re getting to know, and you’ll end up in more photos yourself without looking like a vapid narcissist. It’s a win-win for everybody!

There you have it. Happy picture taking! If you have any funny examples or stories of you breaking these rules, post them in the comments below.