Full disclosure: I work for the media department of non-profit so I am properly subjective, absolutely biased, and in no way can my appeal to your emotions be trusted. I need you to understand that this is not about my particular non-profit gaining ground or having great financial success. God has immensely blessed the work of the hands that work here and He has sustained the work on the field for 20+ years. I am not jealous of those who have better media, better websites, better social media platforms, etc. My job is to tend my plot well, and one of the plots He’s given me to tend is this blog and the message that goes out from it. This is something I’m personally passionate about—what I’m writing here is not necessarily endorsed by my employers.
I read an article a few weeks ago that is still ruminating around in my innards. I found myself nodding so much while reading my co-worker probably thought I’d forsaken Bon Iver and was headbanging to Metallica in my headphones. He wrote:
We cross into a culture of celebrity when we assume that merit in one field or one discipline necessarily carries that merit to other fields or disciplines. More particularly, it comes when we transfer theauthority of one field into another, so that we assume the guy with the popular blog must be a great expositor of the Bible (thus transferring the authority of his success in social media into authority the pulpit). Christian celebrity comes when we assume that the songwriter must be a noteworthy teacher, that the YouTube phenom is worthy of our pulpit, and that the guy who sells so many books must be able to craft a sermon on any topic or any text. Merit in one isolated field convinces us that this person has earned the right to every other platform. When we do this we have elevated not on the basis of merit, but of celebrity.
Read that again if you need to.
America is the land of opportunity and one of the opportunities we have is free speech. Free speech means we can say pretty much anything we want and evolution means that the ones who say what they want the best win. This has resulted in many voices saying powerful, enlightening, and inspiring things. This is why we had Martin Luther King, Jr. and Langston Hughes and Flannery O’Connor and even Joel Osteen. Men and women who say winning things in winning ways—everybody wins, right?
Not right though.
Message aside (I’m in no way endorsing Osteen, for example.), the one who says it best still wins. Presidents are elected on this merit and pastors are procured on it, men are married and professors are picked on it. Merit on the basis of winsome words wins peoples affections, allegiances, and votes.
There’s no way around that. It’s beautiful if you think about it. Really beautiful how words and images resonated within us. I love that. It’s why I’ve committed my life to using words and images to tell the stories of people everywhere.
In the non-profit world, or more specifically the charity world, however, this beautiful gift of telling a story can be very deceptive.
A Name by Any Other Name
I told you at the beginning of this that I was going to use the logical fallacy of appeal to emotions which is interesting because that is what the non-profit sector in many ways spends their energy doing best. I do it too. I want to tell our story in compelling and interesting ways, I want you to cry, I want you to feel deeply what the people we’re helping feel. Then I want you to give. I do. I want you to give me two pennies or two thousand pennies. I want to show you that there’s a need across the globe and you can meet that need. But I use the fact that you’re a human with a predictable emotional response to get to that place. And I don’t think that’s wrong. The bible says that there’s a relationship between our emotions and our finances and that’s a good thing, I think it is.
Where it begins to go poorly, and where I am actually going with this post, is when you have someone with celebrity status or someone who rises to celebrity status on the platform of a social issue—but they are standing on nothing but the shoulders of financial backers. What I mean is that they have no numbers, no people, no proof that their passionate plea is actually resulting in lives being affected and changed—at least results equal to the amount of financial backing they get.
Because they have made a name for themselves, they become the authority on activity that might not actually be producing the results you think you’re supporting.
And I know, I’m know I’m biased, but I also know that I have an insider’s view on some of these non-profits and I’m not going to tell you who they are.
Because that’s your job.
It’s Your Job
It is your job to ask about financial decisions charities make—what percentage goes to the field?
It is your job to ask for numbers of lives changed? Sometimes it’s hard to nail down exact numbers, but we can at least give you an estimate.
It is your job to ask whether the cost of paying for a pair of shoes, glasses, a tshirt, a bracelet, a watch, etc. is creating a sustainable and substantial difference in the places you’re being told it is.
It is your job to look at the crowd a charismatic speaker draws and ask whether there is celebrity happening here or charity.
It is not impossible to have charity with celebrity at the helm, and some great, great work is happening when the headliner is a great marketer.
But do not be deceived by masterful campaigns and flashy marketing:
Sometimes it is the least of these giving cups of cold water to the least of these.