Archive for ‘Philanthropy’

Storytelling with Dignity

This article is geared towards all the self-declared “mission nerds,” non-profit professionals, and everyone who tells stories. We tell stories all the time, whether to show the impact of mission work, raise donations, or communicate an example of how something works. However, we must be mindful of exactly how we portray someone’s story. It’s so easy for us (in the missions and non-profit space) to fall into the trap of exploitive storytelling. That is, using the stories of families and those we serve in a way that only focuses on their short-comings and serves our end-goal. 

Exploitive storytelling often happens without the writer’s knowledge. An unconscious bias that slips its way into the finished work. It’s a byproduct of the writer taking in someone’s story and then using it to fit their narrative or their end-goal. For example, if our goal is to raise donations then we might be tempted to cherry-pick only the worst parts of someone’s story to evoke pity, guilt, and sorrow onto potential donors. Not only does this create a toxic donor relationship, but also a distorted view of the people that are getting help. Overtime, exploitive storytelling creates an unconscious structure of haves and have-nots. The donors have what the families lack and the non-profit staff are the answer. Such a culture isn’t healthy or sustainable for anyone! 

Some telltale signs of exploitive storytelling are that it invokes pity, but not empathy from the reader. That the story being told results in the provision of help or services, but not respect or dignity. Exploitive storytelling only focuses on a family’s short-comings, differences, and problems just to invoke a reaction from the reader. That reaction could be donating, volunteering, or something else. The reader may come away with a sense of absolute superiority, which just feeds into the unconscious structure of haves and have-nots. Exploitive storytelling results when we tell someone’s story incorrectly, incompletely, and through our own lens. 

Unfortunately, Doxa has been guilty of exploitive storytelling. Something we continue to work on to this day, in communicating our work honestly, transparently, and completely. Many other non-profits struggle with this, too. One advantage that Doxa has, though, is that thousands of people have been down to Tijuana to see the impact first-hand. A picture is worth a thousand words and evokes something more than just reading a story. 

So how can we move away from exploitive storytelling? And towards stories that are not just honest, but complete and honoring. 

The very first step is a recognition that we are just as broken as the people we serve. Our brokenness may look different, but to think that we aren’t broken or are better is an inaccurate understanding. As a side note, this recognition will also help to avoid white-savior complex. Which is so easy for us to fall into, especially when we’re engaged with projects that have large generational impacts such as house building or education scholarships. (by the way, if you haven’t heard of white-savior complex before, feel free to Google away and maybe we’ll dedicate a future article about how Doxa actively discourages it) 

A second safeguard against exploitive storytelling is maintaining a close connection with the people we serve. As an organization, Doxa puts volunteers on the front lines thereby letting each person’s eyes, ears, nose, and touch do the storytelling. This is also why all of Doxa’s programs are led by Mexican nationals. All Doxa staff, except one, are Mexican and live in the same neighborhoods where we conduct house building, education, and community programs. Every recipient of a house or scholarship is qualified and stewarded along by a Doxa staff member. That relationship is maintained long after the house gets built and throughout their involvement as a scholarship recipient. 

Finally, there is an even simpler way to avoid exploitive storytelling. That is if we’re not comfortable with the families reading their own story as we would publish it, then don’t do it. Running the finished stories through this lens is a simple check and balance against exploitation. 

So how can we achieve telling stories with dignity? The answer doesn’t mean just avoiding hard or sad stories altogether. Pain, sorrow, and brokenness are part of our world and have a place in stories. I would venture a guess that these things are also part of our own stories, in at least one way or another. 

Keeping the people we serve at the center of the story is a great way to build in dignity. This means just being a conduit for their own words and voice. To the maximum extent possible, just translate their words and let their own voice shine through. This preserves the authenticity of voice and guards against the storyteller being the author of their story. Additionally, we need to fight to urge to interpret their story; and thereby, subtly changing the meaning. As the writer for stories, we need to develop the mantra of less is more. 

Another important characteristic of storytelling is balance. Telling stories with dignity means telling the entire story, not just the parts that you want the reader to react to. This means showcasing the strengths along with the weaknesses. It is far too easy to see the people we serve as just a bunch of weaknesses, short-comings, and problems that need solving. This mentality is toxic and isn’t putting anyone in right relationship. 

Instead, we should focus our stories on how the help or service will enhance the strengths already present in the community or family we serve. This means that our help is not the main show, but an added benefit that has ripple effects and builds upon local strengths and capacities already present. That our programs complement what is already going on in the local community. This type of approach is also related to the Asset-Based Community Development model, which looks at communities through the lens of what they already have rather than defining them based on what they lack. 

The art of good storytelling is rare. When a story is told with dignity and respect, it not only honors the family but also engages the reader. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

For further reading on exploitive storytelling, check out the following two articles.
Are Your Nonprofit Organization’s Stories Dishonoring the Families You Serve? by Dani Robbins
How Can Nonprofits Move from Exploitative Storytelling to Justice-Oriented Storytelling? by Debi Jenkins

How to Responsibly Engage with Tijuana Orphanages

In a previous edition of the Doxa Download there was an article on how kids end up in Tijuana orphanages and even if “orphanage” is the best term to use for these homes. Perhaps surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of kids in an orphanage have living parents. Their parents, for whatever reason, just may not be in a position to care adequately for their kids. In Tijuana, and many other places around the world, this has led to the creation of orphanages. 

Over the course of many years a network of orphanages has emerged throughout Tijuana and its surrounding cities. This is common among many other countries around the world, too. Even though orphanages started out of necessity and good intentions to care for children in need, the last several years of research have shed a different light on children who grow up in an orphanage setting. This research points to family reunification as the best course of action in almost all scenarios. That it is better to work with families to ensure that kids stay with them or be reunited with them. 

When short-term mission teams are added to the scenario, orphanage work can become even more difficult to do responsibly. First, it is common for orphanage directors to feel that they must keep kids in their care in order for financial support to continue. This creates a cycle incentivizing orphanages to keep kids in their care instead of facilitating family reunification. Second, the rapid and intermittent introduction and removal of volunteers can lead to attachment disorder in children. This can happen especially if children are not receiving the love and affection they need directly from their primary caregivers. Third, local initiatives and solutions can become undermined when outside actors are the main drivers of programs and institutions. Articles from the Chalmers Center and Ethical Mission Trips highlight and expound upon these short-comings. 

Recognizing these dynamics and possible pitfalls is not cause to just shut everything down. Instead, it is an opportunity to heed this sound wisdom and rethink and rework the outdated model. Doxa has taken a fundamentally different approach to orphanage partnership in the following ways: 

  • Doxa groups’ primary activity while serving in Tijuana is building a house, not interacting with orphanage children or even having prolonged contact with them. Not only does building houses actually help to keep families together in the first place, having limited interaction with orphanage children helps to prevent attachment disorder. This ensures that the main source of love and affection for kids is coming from a stable place, and anything else they experience is just a supportive complement to the important work already going on.
  • Since Doxa groups pay orphanages for their hospitality and space to stay, this creates an opportunity for earned income that is not tied to the number of kids or even the specific kids in an orphanage. This removes the pressure often felt by orphanage directors to keep their orphanage full of kids and retain the same kids from year to year. Overall, this helps to build long-term capacity for care of children when warranted and responsible.
  • Doxa staff are in contact with orphanage staff year around and these relationships are centered around supporting the orphanage in its work. Doxa is not the star, instead it is just there to journey along with the orphanage. Sharing in the highs and lows, and playing a supportive role when needed.

While there is always room for improvement, these key differences in how Doxa partners with Tijuana orphanages can help lead to healthier outcomes. With everyone’s interests aligned, this frees up the orphanage and local social workers to pursue the ultimate goal of family reunification for every child. At the heart of that work is relationships and the reconciliation of ones that have been broken in the past.

“Successful” Mission Work

There are entire organizations and books dedicated to uncovering what “successful” mission work looks like. How to identify, define, and evaluate it. In this article, we’re going to touch on a few of the larger themes that concern stories, pace of change, recognizing brokenness, and process.

As we engage in mission work, so much of what we do is shaped by the stories we believe. Not only the stories we believe about the people we are serving, but the stories we believe about who we are as people. When serving the materially poor, it’s hard not to bring in our own bias and stories about others’ situations. We need to be especially careful about implicitly telling people through our work that success looks like us and we are here to “help.” Instead, we should be asking God what’s the larger story here? We should increase our awareness to realize what work He has already got in motion and ask what role He would like us to play? What is God’s story for everyone? 

Asking those larger questions also makes us equal actors in the story. This is the first step to recognizing that we are just as broken as the people we are serving. Sure, our brokenness may look different, but we are broken nonetheless. Flourishing life is a balance of community and stuff. Our Western culture typically has plenty of stuff (i.e. income), but lacks in community (i.e. relationships). Non-western cultures typically appear to have the opposite. We must recognize and be aware of God’s larger work of change not only for the people we are serving, but for ourselves. 

This change may also take longer than we would like. Changes in material poverty can take a while, especially on a large scale. If our human hands deviate from His plan or rush the work, then human hands are also capable of undoing the progress. What has come from God and is built by God, no human hands can undo. 

While results matter in mission work, so does process. It’s important to keep an objective eye on both. For example, it’s tempting to increase programmatic efficiency by use of technology. Doxa could provide scholarships to more students if there was no requirement for students to apply in person and we did everything over the phone. However, this advance in efficiency would undermine the relational contract that is formed between the student, their family, and Doxa. While technology can help increase programmatic efficiencies, it must not result in undermining the community aspect of poverty alleviation efforts. 

If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into these topics, we’d recommend listening to the Rethink Poverty podcast. This interview with Brian Fikkert is a great starting place. 

Being Helpful: Relief, Rehabilitation, or Development

Our response to poverty and how we carryout poverty alleviation plans matters. We have a desire to help in a productive way, and not enable or make worse someone’s situation in the long-run. How can we do this? 

First, it helps to determine what type of poverty alleviation effort is appropriate: relief, rehabilitation, or development. This classification was pioneered in the best-selling book, When Helping Hurts

  • Relief is characterized by an urgent need that people are incapable of fulfilling themselves typically due to a one-time crisis (think COVID-19 sickness or food shortage). 
  • Rehabilitation occurs when people have recovered their bearings and can start to actively be part of their own solution (think active job searching after unexpected job loss). This continues until they return to pre-crisis conditions. 
  • Development describes the growth that someone has above and beyond their pre-crisis state (think moving into a nicer house due to years of dedicated job growth or being able to provide education opportunities to their children that were unattainable for themselves). Development can take years to materialize and even span generations in the same family. 

Another key distinction between these poverty alleviation strategies is that relief is typically done to someone and rehabilitation and development are done with someone (learn more from The Chalmers Center). 

Within the current context of COVID-19 in Tijuana, Doxa’s response has been a mixture of relief and rehabilitation. Relief efforts have included food distribution to community households, special emergency funding to orphanages, and the provision of face masks. The procurement process for the food and face masks has been rehabilitation as we source these items locally. Partnering with a local farmer, produce vendor, and larger grocery stores to give them all needed business. Repurposing our house curtain maker, Luis, to instead make hundreds of face masks during this time. Additionally, when legally allowed to resume house building, Doxa will be employing local people to build houses. Another example of rehabilitation efforts. 

Even without the challenging times of COVID-19, it can be hard to accurately respond to poverty. For some it evokes an emotional and spiritual reaction and for others an alarming panic and urgency to just do something. If we’re not careful, however, the wrong application can lead to long-term harm. As the situation around COVID-19 further develops and gradually comes to an end, there will be another difficult decision-point on the horizon. When to stop relief efforts before they start to do harm?