Okay, I’ll admit I’m behind the times. I finally read the Help by Katheryn Stockett. It was as moving and poignant as the hype made it out to be. I cannot help but reflect on how this courageous story might shed some light on nonprofits and social media.
About the Help:
The Help is set in Jackson Mississippi in the 60’s against the backdrop of the nationwide civil rights movement. In the book, an awkward 20-something white woman nick-named Skeeter wants to become a writer. She looks around for a story worth telling and, through conversations with Aibileen, an African American maid, she discovers it: the untold stories of maids working for white families.
Skeeter works in secret to interview and write the stories of twelve maids. Her book is written anonymously because, if anyone discovered the identities of the maids, there would be disastrous – even deadly – consequences.
As I read this story, I saw a parallel to today’s world: nonprofits and social media. Today nonprofits tell the stories of the most disadvantaged, marginalized members of our societies. We tell the stories of the homeless, the bullied LGBT youth, the victims of domestic violence, the mentally ill. These stories are stories that those of us working in nonprofits hear every day. But unless we tell these stories, the larger community doesn’t know they exist.
The Help offers three lessons for nonprofits today:
1) Let people make their own decisions.
When Skeeter invited people to participate in the project, she told them the facts: they wouldn’t be a lot of money involved, it may be very risky, and she couldn’t guarantee that they wouldn’t be fired or worse. The twelve women who participated in the project made the informed decision to participate. As the project continued, and the danger increased, they continued to make their own decisions.
Skeeter gave the women the dignity of choice. She also gave them a platform to speak their truth. In working with nonprofits, specifically in media relations, I find that many clients are overjoyed with the opportunity to share their story. They want to tell the world what happened to them and how they are turning their world around. When nonprofits let clients make their own decisions, they offer them dignity and a road to empowerment.
2) Be financially (and otherwise) transparent.
The financial arrangement was transparent from day one: any money made from the book would be split evenly thirteen ways. I doubt any of the women participated for the money but knowing that the benefits would be shared equally made a huge difference. They knew what they were working for: the story.
Nonprofits are legally and morally obligated to a higher standard of transparency than for-profits. Those of us who are nonprofit-savvy know how to find financial information about just about any 501(c)3, but a marginalized client might not. By being proactive about financial transparency, nonprofits establish trust. One example of this is when using a client story in online philanthropy. Of course we want to ask for verbal and written permission to use their story in social media; however, we should go a step further. We should allow them to see (and give feedback) on how we tell their story. We should also allow them to celebrate with us the money raised for the organization. Certainly clients wouldn’t be paid, but they can and should be informed.
3) Sign your name.
Skeeter and the maids agreed to be anonymous for safety purposes. As the book they co-authored was published, no one spoke a word about who was involved in the process. But, like in most small towns, the rumors spread. In perhaps the most moving scene of the book, the African American church of Jackson Mississippi signed their names on the recently published book. This book was presented to Albileen as a gesture of solidarity and gratitude. This act said, “We stand with you.”
Nonprofit organizations are perhaps one of the few vehicles through which the marginalized members of our society can speak. In many ways, we are their voice, their advocate, and their champion. If we don’t sign our names, who will?
Skeeter, Albileen and the 11 others were brave, brave women. The nonprofit organizations I know are also filled with brave people. When we are transparent, give people choices, and are willing to sign our names, the world can change.