Since I speak and consult with many groups around the country, I often find myself placed on their donor solicitation lists. Many of the subsequent fundraising letters I receive are from food banks which urge me to help them feed the hungry. The letters rarely vary in their message, stressing the unprecedented demand on their services, the increase in food “poundage” distributed this year, and a personalized story of hardship faced by a person like Julie or Jessica or Tameka.
Three central messages often rise to the top of these letters. The first, of course, is childhood hunger which we all agree is an unacceptable condition in America. Apparently, in spite of tens of billions of dollars spent by the federal government through child nutrition programs like school meals, WIC, and SNAP (food stamps being the largest child feeding program), to say nothing of tens of thousands of private feeding sites, millions of children remain hungry on a daily basis.
The second message employs the two-sided coin of exclusion and guilt. This technique has special seasonal appeal such as the one I received this summer that painted the image of a typical American family cookout where plates were loaded with chicken, corn, and salad, while “empty plates and empty stomachs are the norm” for many children in that state. And of course we’re all familiar with Thanksgiving, which, according to another letter I received, “is not a joyous time [for the hungry but] just another day of looking into an empty refrigerator.”
The third component of the “ask” is designed to touch the MBA in all of us. You see, it’s not enough to be charitable and compassionate in America, we must also be efficient which means that charities, like everyone else, must secure a respectable return on investment. To this end the solicitation letters often inform me of how the food bank’s large scale of operation allows them to handle and distribute more food for every operating dollar (a little like Wal-Mart), and how many people my donation will feed.
While I am not immune to these tugs at the heart strings, nor do I want to see my donation frittered away, what these letters so sorely lack is any information about how the organization is attacking the root causes of hunger, namely poverty. Are they simply doing the same thing they’ve been doing year after year, only more of it, without making any appreciable difference in the underlying problem, or are they heading off in bold and promising new directions? After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but getting the same unsatisfactory results.
So rather than wait for food banks to send me the letter I’ve been hoping for, I thought I’d write that letter myself – to me and from an executive director I hope will one day emerge. It goes like this:
Dear Mr. Winne,
We have great news for you this year! We at the Food Bank are happy to report that for the first time in our history we have donated less food this year than the previous year.
Why are we happy about that? Well, it’s because of what happened to Sally Jones, a former client of the Food Bank. Sally is a single mother of two children. She works part time at a nursing home and now takes regular classes at the community college to become a nurse practitioner. She is a former client of ours because our city passed a living wage law that requires employers to pay their workers $12.50 per hour. This replaces the terribly unfair minimum wage of $7.85.
The extra income, coupled with the free day care and health insurance she now receives, enables Sally to put food on the table without our help. While we miss seeing Sally around the food bank, we do see her occasionally at our community garden where she and her children are growing vegetables, vegetables that, by the way, she learned to prepare in healthy and delicious ways at our Cooking with Community program.
All of this progress, including the drop in pounds of food distributed, was made possible by donors like you, Mr. Winne. Your hefty two-figure contribution, when joined with those of somewhat more munificent donors, enabled the Food Bank to dedicate an ever greater share of its budget to advocacy training and public policy work.
This work persuaded our city council to pass a living wage ordinance, and the state legislature to fully support ObamaCare as well as adequate funding for child care and our community colleges. We also worked to ensure that Congress fully funded nutrition programs.
But you know what the best news is? It wasn’t just our paid staff who worked for these changes, it was also our hundreds of volunteers and thousands of donors who wrote letters, made phone calls, and showed up in the bus loads at public hearings.
And you know who else showed up, Mr. Winne? Sally Jones, because we helped her gain enough confidence to tell her story to our lawmakers, and to tell them that she only wanted a fair chance for herself and her children; she wanted a helping hand, not a handout.
So please help us continue our work of empowering more and more of our clients and neighbors so that we can distribute less food year after year.
The Executive Director
PS. And by the way, Mr. Winne, if there’s any chance you can bump your gift up to perhaps, the low three-figure category, we’d be eternally grateful.
Mark, my old roommate and dear friend:
This was a good letter; it serves several functions, one being an alert to those supposed charity organizations who play a very costly tune on our heartstrings. I’ve seen a lot of that happen also in foundations in the Midwest who every long summer drought or severely cold winter ask for food, blankets, breakfasts for the elderly, because there is supposedly no other way, and the problems are deep, historical, and structural. I’ve stopped giving not because I don’t believe that places in the Midwest, reservations in particular, are not in dire need. Unemployment, alcoholism, governmental neglect, and above all dire poverty turns the reserves into places of despair, high suicide rates, absurdly high diabetes rates, etc. etc. There is no sustainability in the foundations’ promises to get the people through another freezing winter. Who is getting sustained in the end ? Where is the PROOF that something good and lasting is coming out of what we send ? Nothing in return except maybe some Christmas cards. I don’t want the Christmas cards. I would rather support a documentary, an artist, or a homegrown project for healthcare, doctors from the communities themselves. It’s a big bill though if what’s really needed is a radical break with the structures that profit from maintaining things the way they are, and have been, for generations. The attitudes that are ingrained – that’s a really slow process, but thankfully a younger generation is trying to turn things around.
PS. copyright your letter, else the above mentioned foundations may just start sending letters using your ideas.
I just wanted to say that I thought your letter toy “you” was wonderful! The world would be a much better place if more folks thought along those lines. It’s sad to say that some folks think a helping hand to pull you up should be the one to smack you as well. Sometimes, what most folks take for granted means the difference between food and or bills for the Sally Jones of the world.
On behalf of the Sally Jones of the world I just wanted to thank you because I am one of the Sally Jones of the world. The difference is your donated dollars lead me to Just Harvest where I can encourage other “Sallys”.