I had never heard the term “poverty porn” — the idea of using stories and images to tug at our heartstrings so we open our wallets — until this week. But I certainly knew it when I saw it. It’s rampant around the holidays.
It’s the story of the inner-city family shivering in a one-room apartment with no heat. Or the photo of a tattered rural teen who cares for a half-dozen younger siblings while her mother works overnight.
It’s the idea that “we have to trot out the stories of needy people,” in detail, for people to make donations, says Shay Stewart-Bouley, executive director of Boston’s Community Change, which combats racism. And the way we do it “doesn’t feel respectful to their humanity. . . . We should probably ask ourselves, ‘Why do we need to see that in order to give?’ ”
For two decades, Stewart-Bouley has worked for nonprofit entities that help underserved communities. She wonders why people do not think of giving year-round, something the nonprofits do as a matter of being part of a community. Then they would not need manipulative videos that invade privacy — that zoom close in on pain, distress and privation — in the name of helping out.
Charitable donations and volunteering drop off dramatically in January, and “by June or July, everybody is on vacation,” says Stewart-Bouley. But people need to eat every day.
Small organizations that fall outside urban areas are often especially underfunded, and Stewart-Bouley calls January a good time for the civic-minded to think not just about money but also about time and skills that might help a small organization — volunteering one’s social media prowess, delivering food, answering phones.
Michele Booth Cole is executive director of Safe Shores — the DC Children’s Advocacy Center, which serves families affected by violence. Each year, the center makes a holiday plea to donors, who are matched with a wish list that gives children’s ages, gender and what they want for Christmas. The center does not provide names or any identifying features of the recipient families out of respect for their privacy and to honor their dignity. Donors fill the lists and drop off presents.
“There were literally thousands of gifts — dollhouses, bicycles. Somebody gave an iPad to one family. People were just incredibly generous,” Cole says. “Then it’s January.”
And the donor numbers drop off to just a fraction of what they were in December. Maybe 25 people a month seek to donate instead of 250. The number does not rise again until the following December, Cole says. “One of the things we talk about all the time is that child abuse doesn’t just happen in December or during back-to-school month.”
Studies show that donors feel an emotional lift when they give. And when giving or volunteering is done outside the holiday rush, people have a chance to be thoughtful about how they want to sustain and interact with their communities. “You can find out what moves you,” Cole says. “We have [coffees and tours] where you can come in and learn what we do.”
We want people “who care about our cause to invest, then tell friends and family and co-workers,” she says. “That’s how you build a movement.”
While we’re hopeful about all the other things we want to change for the new year — like our waistlines and savings — we might also think about our responsibilities to one another.
Cole says we need to shift “the cadence of the conversation” so that giving is a part of the culture. And it at least needs to outlast our other resolutions.
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