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Lincoln Douglas debatesLast week I attended one day of a community forum hosted by a state organization that is a clearinghouse for non-profits. Featured were non-profit gurus with varying credentials and backgrounds, covering topics ranging from increasing donations to taking care of donors so that you will increase donations. (just kidding, there was a topic on staff burnout-presumably from trying to increase donations, I guess). I was able to attend two presentations; the first one by the vice president of marketing for a consulting firm. The topic was “Reaching Out Through Messaging”. The other presentation was by a volunteer, who had just won a state award for exceptional volunteerism. His topic was “Doing and Believing.”

As I stepped over the crowd to find a seat in the first presentation, I knocked several handouts to the floor. The room was packed. Our speaker, dressed impeccably in pinstripes, told us of the power of messaging, especially when knocking on the doors of potential donors. On screen, he showed examples of pictures that tell compelling stories about the good work our organizations are doing. Slide after slide showed grinning people with perfect teeth helping people who looked just enough down on their luck. Not dirty or disgusting, the pictured recipients had appropriate gratitude angled just right for the camera. All in all, I got the messages from the pictures. Donating money=nice scenes like this going on. Evidently, these pictures work, because he gave some pretty impressive statistics. Within a moment, the subconscious mind of the donor is invaded with good feelings. Nicely done, I thought. He did say that messaging would apply to recruiting volunteers as well. Paint the picture, tell the story. He showed one picture of volunteers. They were gathered together, arms around one another, smiling for the camera. They looked pretty happy. They weren’t sweating, so I’m guessing this was a before and not an after picture. I did notice they all had perfect teeth. Hmmm, maybe they all went to the same dentist.

I pretty much could sit anywhere I wanted to in the next presentation. I guess most of the attendees elected to go to the concurrent session, “Bridging the Donor Gap”. I looked around at my fellow seat mates and nodded. You can pick out the volunteer managers at symposium. We all pretty much get out our steno pads and wait expectantly.
The award-winning volunteer, Gabe, walked up to the front of the room and turned to look at us. He was tall, with raven hair and craggy features. His smile was impish, as if he had just sneaked into his father’s cocktail party. He thanked us for coming and then proceeded to tell us his story. A youth minister, Gabe began his ministry ten years ago. He had watched with concern the growing number of homeless folks in his area and so he began to collect basic essentials to give out, first on a monthly basis, then every week. This ministry, with the help of the youth of his church, added a soup kitchen, and a counseling service. He, and several youth members volunteered at a local thrift store in exchange for the unsellable items such as socks and kitchen utensils. He then grew quiet as he told us about one of his most memorable clients, “Ruth,” a homeless woman who had lost her job and with a ten-year old son, Jason, in tow, arrived at the church doorstep. Ruth had dropped out of high school when she was sixteen and pregnant and now, at 27, she found herself without a safety net after her mother died. Gabe walked quietly back and forth in front of us, running his fingers through his hair as he told us that shy little Justin loved Batman. His Batman sneakers were well-worn and the only sneakers the youth group had to replace them were plain. Gabe paused and told us what happened next. The youth group started texting all their friends, asking for a pair of boys Batman sneakers in size 7. By the time Gabe arrived at his church the next morning, not only were there three pairs of Batman sneakers arriving at church, but friends of friends brought Batman shirts and toys along with packs of new socks, food, underwear, dresses, diapers, jeans, and more. On those donations alone, his group was able to feed and clothe 5 homeless families. Gabe looked us in the eyes. “Believe,” he said. “Believe that you can do good work and you will.”
When Gabe finished, we all stood up and applauded. He smiled reluctantly. I didn’t check to see if he had perfect teeth. I was too busy being mesmerized by his message.