On Worthiness: How to Avoid Falling into a Charity Model Trap

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When it comes to philanthropy, the idea of “worthiness” is often an important factor in a donor’s decision to give. Causes are worthy of investment. Problems are worth solving. Committing to a nonprofit with a mission you believe in is a worthwhile undertaking.

But there is an insidious side to worthiness that sometimes plays out in our sector, too. When the assessment of “worthy” (and consequently: “not worthy”) is turned on the people our organizations serve, it becomes a weapon.

The idea that some people are deserving of support while others are not is largely an artifact of the individualized charity model that most nonprofit organizations have been moving away from for the last several decades in favor of approaches that fuel meaningful systems change.

It assumes, by default, that those with the resources to give are also the best equipped to determine how those resources should be leveraged and who should benefit as a result.

This challenge is particularly rife in the human services sector, where there are many preconceived notions about the so-called “right way” to get back on one’s feet and under what timeline.

FrameWorks Institute has done excellent work outlining the trappings of common narratives in our culture that shape this thinking—namely, Americans’ tendency to equate wellbeing almost exclusively with financial self-sufficiency and the need for services as stemming from some personal failing rather than very real systemic factors.

This reasoning can often fly under the radar because it exudes an air of folk wisdom, barely perceptible under our unconscious biases. But upon further scrutiny, such narratives often fall apart.

The charity model leaves little room for the more complex reality—the intersecting factors that many people accessing human services, especially today, are facing.

Are people experiencing chronic homelessness facing this challenge due to some shared character flaw, or is it more likely that skyrocketing rents, lack of access to mental health services, and fewer stable job opportunities have driven increases in housing insecurity across the country?

Are students in that school producing low test scores because they are simply not working hard enough, or is it the biased test design and the years of de facto redlining that have contributed to the dwindling of available funding?

Of course, donors want to make the best possible investment, and staff want to make the biggest impact. We all want philanthropic dollars to do the greatest possible good.

At the same time, there is pressure to avoid the risk that a donor’s investment could fail. For some, this gets boiled down to steering clear of those who do not fit a Platonic ideal of who is most worthy of support.

Giving becomes conditional. Support people in getting into stable housing, but not if they’re too early in the stages of recovery. Expand scholarship opportunities, but not if the teen has a criminal record. Give food to those experiencing hunger, but don’t spend too much on refrigerated trucks that carry fruits and vegetables.

The resulting goalposts are, at best, misguided metrics that don’t factor in the complexities of the issues at hand or, at worst, arbitrary measures rooted in a donors’ own biases or place of privilege.

As nonprofit communicators and fundraisers, it is our job to help our donors and fellow staff move away from seeing the people our organizations serve as “worthy” or “unworthy.” Rather, we must invite them in as partners in solving these issues together—and that partnership sometimes means having tough conversations.

It’s up to us to use our organization’s position of expertise to dispel inaccurate yet pervasive beliefs about the role of human services and the worthiness of people who access them, and fight for the fundamental dignity and humanity of our clients.

Though this work can be intimidating, particularly as it relates to our donor relationships, there are a few initial steps we can take to get started:

Assess your own biases.

For any organization seeking to dispel the myth that only certain people are worthy of support, assessing bias is an essential first step. We all bring our own implicit biases, assumptions, and respective privileges in all that we do, and you can’t bring donors along if you haven’t named the biases within your organization that unknowingly perpetuate some of the ideas you’re fighting against.

Having an honest conversation within ourselves and amongst our colleagues is critical to ensuring we are not perpetuating harmful narratives in our work.

Share human stories responsibly.

There is so much great work being done around how we can craft true stories that reflect the complexities of the work that we do. Consider which stories you are telling, which you might be omitting, and why.

A recent installment of our communications series dives deep into effective and equitable nonprofit storytelling.

Don’t rely exclusively on the most measurable outcomes.

Measuring impact is important to demonstrate the power of your work, but there is also a risk of leaning too heavily on the quantifiable metrics donors often crave. This overemphasis on data—the number of people entering housing, the pounds of food delivered—can lead us to define success and worth by the wrong things, erasing nuance and complexity of the issues at play.

Metrics can be used strategically to boost donor confidence, but overreliance on them may actually hinder our audience’s ability to truly understand the problem we are trying to solve.

There are many organizations tackling how we can take a more comprehensive approach to evaluating and sharing our impact—we recommend the Equitable Evaluation Initiative as a great place to learn more.

Encourage “learning moments” with donors.

None of us have all the answers, but meaningful conversations are going to be much more useful than tidy FAQs when it comes to a deeper understanding of why people need support from our sector.

Foster a culture of dialogue and growth within your organization and in your relationships with donors. Equip staff with talking points that help them to combat common myths or misconceptions that donors might hold, helping them to redirect the conversation into a more productive space for your organization’s work.

And bring the vulnerability from your own internal experience forward as you engage donors; sharing the evolution of your own understanding of the issues can help others feel educated and brought in rather than reprimanded or left behind.

Accept that you might lose people.

This is often the hardest of all to swallow—but just because we are moving forward doesn’t mean that everyone is coming with us. In an ever more politicized world, these important conversations are bound to get contentious at times.

Stay true to your guiding values and you will find that those who are meant to be on this journey with you, will be.

Combatting narratives around the worthiness of the people we serve is important work despite the challenges we may face. It may not be easy—but it’s worth it.