Nonprofit organizations tell stories about the people that they help to humanize their work. This can lead to greater awareness of the value of their programs and greater support. However, there can be a number of issues in how individuals receiving aid or support are depicted in those stories. This is the first of a series of blog posts about issues which arise when organizations share stories of those they serve. The focus of this post is how the individuals who show up in success stories are portrayed.
To get a sense of how individuals in success stories are described, I Googled “social service client success stories,” and examined the first 35 that showed up in the search. These came from organizations in seven states serving those experiencing homelessness poverty, and domestic violence, ex-convicts, individuals with behavioral health problems, and immigrants.
There was a familiar pattern in the stories. Individuals find their way to an organization which provides services or aid. The issues, problems, and challenges of these individuals are described with varying amounts of details. The services provided to those individuals are also recounted, in some cases with more specifics than others. The impact of the services on the client are described in some cases. Often, the clients are described as grateful after receiving the services/benefits. Here are several examples: “she has a renewed sense of hope;” “she is now working full-time;” “I never knew what a strong person I was until going through the program.”
In reading the 35 brief descriptions, I saw two-dimensional pictures of almost all of those who were seeking services, as they were shown only in terms of their situation or needs. With one exception, there were not description of the strengths that these persons had before they had contact with the serving organizations. The one exception was about a former prisoner: "He really dedicated himself to this. To have spent all that time incarcerated, and then to spend all that time to stay true to the course and not turn back, that’s who he is. For other people, going through the same thing, for this amount of time, this experience may have crushed them. But, he persevered for himself and for his family. He is an ideal of what a man is—a family man— a father who does what it takes, the right way."
For someone to be treated with dignity, as a person of value, one needs to be seen as an individual, not just a member of a racial or an ethnic group, and not defined by a label or stereotype. When people acknowledge that there are a number of things that make people who they are, when they recognize that individuals are more than their situation and their issues, then they are beginning to treat those persons with the dignity they deserve. The individuals in the stories were not being treated with dignity.
How then to show more than a two-dimensional representation of individuals? Here are two examples of approaches, neither of which are common ways of telling stories. The first example (shown below), and this is not a factual story, comes from the charity War Child Holland, a non-profit which aims to protect children caught up in conflicts, support their education, and equip them with skills for the future. This video shows an eight-year-old Syrian boy, Kadar, in a dusty refugee camp with a superhero playmate.
The second example is the “See Me” campaign from St. John’s Homeless Shelter in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in which eight images, each with the words of an individual experiencing homelessness, were placed on city sidewalks in the summer of 2019. Three of these images are shown at the bottom of this post.
“The guests who come to St. John’s are so much more than a singular identity of ‘homeless.’ Each person is someone’s son or daughter, each person has hopes, dreams, and qualities that make them unique,” says Alexa Priddy, St. John’s Director of Community Engagement.
Physicians in many countries historically have taken the Hippocratic Oath as a rite of passage for medical graduates. In its most common form, it starts with: “First, do no harm.” I believe that when non-profit organizations, in the service of describing their programs and raising funds, depict individuals receiving services as only the sum of their problems, they are doing harm. This practice can further negative stereotypes of those in need. As is shown by the examples shown above, we can do better.
Storying the Human Experience
Yes, it's a grandiose title. But, as Flannery O'Connor once said, "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way."