How NOT to Help Poor People
- Are you planning an event to highlight your work with vulnerable people?
- Are you hosting a fundraiser to raise money for your cause?
- If so, this post is for you and your group.
I’ll never forget an event that made me so angry I nearly walked away from it. Years ago, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at an event designed to raise money for vulnerable children. My team learned as much about the organization as possible, and had several phone conversations with the group’s leaders to prepare for the event. They talked through their event's schedule, and everything seemed fine, over the phone, in emails, and on paper. I felt I had a pretty good idea about how I could customize my message to the specific needs of the group, in order to raise as much money as possible for their cause.
However, when I arrived, something felt off to me. So I just stood in the back of the room to observe the people and the energy in the room. Although it was filled with predominantly white business people who were nicely dressed, there were several “at-risk” African-American kids sitting at tables in the front of the room, all by themselves. While there is nothing wrong with black kids sitting by themselves, something felt a little off to me. What happened next substantiated my suspicions.
A well-meaning leader of the organization got on the microphone and started talking about the kids their group has helped like they were “show and tell” objects: "Little Shaniqua's mom is a crackhead, and so we thought this program would be perfect for her;" Or "Tyrone lives in one of the roughest neighborhoods around here. It's drug-invested with a bunch of thugs, but Tyrone is different..." And so on...
After dinner, right before I was scheduled to speak, the organization decided to have an auction in order to raise money. That has happened at other events at which I have spoken, so I figured it would go seamlessly. However, when the master of ceremony, a white guy, grabbed the cordless microphone, put on a sombrero (a big Mexican hat) and started marching around the room, I didn’t have a good feeling in my gut. He was trying to get people to place the highest bid for whatever was being auctioned off. He was dancing, gyrating, singing and getting others in the audience to do the same, all while they bid for stuff: a massage at a spa, porcelain figurines that looked like little Mexicans huddled up in a circle, a bikini, and other things like that.
While most of the audience was having fun, laughing, and placing their bids, I couldn’t help but notice the faces of the African-American students sitting alone at their tables. They weren’t laughing. They were fake-smiling in confusion (I know that face well because I wore it quite a few times in my youth, in settings like that). They were doing their best to just go with the flow.
I, however, was in the back of the room fuming. I felt as though the very real plight of poor people was being cheapened. It felt like that audience just wanted to have fun, but had no REAL UNDERSTANDING ABOUT HOW HARD IT IS TO BE POOR.
There was nothing fun or funny about that auction to me. It didn't surprise me that the group didn’t even raise that much money through their auction. I believe I could have helped them raise hundreds of thousands of dollars more (I have helped several ogranization raise millions of dollars), but, because of their cultural callousness, or just bad taste, I was no longer sure that most of the money I raised would be used by them in the right way.
When it comes to speaking, if I don't mean it, I won't say it. I am not some motivational speaker who will give you some cotton-candy message about hope and change without addressing the very obstructions that kill hope and prevent change. At my core, I am a messenger, a minister, a servant of a God who believes in helping the least, the last, the lost, and the left out. I am filled with a weighty, inescapable compulsion to be a voice for the voiceless.
So, standing at the back of the room, I could not help but wonder, “Why do so many people of means need to be entertained in order to give to worthy causes? Why can’t the gravity of the causes themselves be enough to inspire their generosity?” I stood there convinced that not all money is good money, and that HOW you raise money for vulnerable people should reflect the very real problems you are trying to address. To be sure, I am not saying such events need to be weep-fests, for there is nothing wrong with having fun. However, what I am saying is there is something wrong when the methods you use to help people offend or embarrass them or take their plights too lightly.
Of course, after all that, someone got up to introduce me, their keynote speaker. Although I was very close to canceling my presentation, walking away and refunding their deposit, I felt it was my responsibility to address what I had just witnessed, and to try to help them see the error of their ways. All of the tears I’ve cried, and all the pain I’ve experienced, and all of the suffering I have seen, and all of the people I have lost, and all of the people who are still stuck at the bottom - often because they were born into poverty-, compelled to me to say some difficult things to that audience. It was not fun for me. So I'm sure that it wasn't fun for them either. Some sat there stunned and shocked. Some looked offended and angry. Others looked ashamed and convicted.
My friends, I am grateful for any and everyone who has a heart to help hurting people, especially vulnerable children. However, as you are sitting in those meetings, planning for your events, please be mindful of how the people you aim to help might perceive your schedule of events.
While there is nothing wrong with talking about helping underprivileged young people, it is important to be very careful about HOW you talk about the help you’ve provided. How you talk about them reveals what you really think about them, and, if you are not culturally considerate, you can talk about people like they are emotionless objects, or projects, or trophies that you have “saved.”
Even though they might live in the projects, poor people themselves are not your projects. They are people who have often been given a bad hand in life- born into poverty, into single-parent homes, often with absent fathers, and who have not been given the same access and opportunities that other people, from more fortunate families, have been given. It is not their fault that they are poor. So be careful about how you think about, talk to, and talk about them. They are not objects. They are not projects. They are not your trophies. They are people, with feelings and families and hopes and dreams, just like you.
If you want to help poor people, start right there, please.
Quick Tips for Hosting an Event for Underperforming or "at-risk" People:
- Do not refer to them with impersonal, pet-like names like "That's my little Fu-Fu," and nobody knows what a Fu Fu is.
- Do not refer to their mothers or fathers as "crackheads," "thugs," "indigents," or whatever else might sound hurtful or offensive to them.
- If a black kid can dance, under no circumstances is it ever okay to refer to them as "spider monkeys" or any other name that's related to monkeys.
- Do not refer to poor neighborhoods in terms that they themselves would not use. If they want to do so, leave that to them.
- Never refer to people as "throwaways." How would you feel if someone called you a throwaway child?
- Talk to them like you would want someone to talk to you.
- See their potential and keep calling them up to it.
- Help your donors see the humanity of the people you serve.
- Inspire your donors with glimpses of what the people you are helping can become by using success stories told with sensitivity.