Your Best Intentions of Promoting Your Work May Be Having Devastating Long-Term Consequences on Some of Your Service Users

People served by your programs may be eager to tell the world how amazing you are or enthusiastically proclaim the awesomeness of your organization.

If you ask, they will be in agreement to have their story and experience focused on your website. If you ask, they will be profiled in your Annual Report. If you ask, they will come and talk at your Annual General Meeting. If you ask, they will speak to media. If you ask, they will come and share at fundraising events. If you ask, they will agree that guests from out of town or other organizations that are visiting your program can come and visit them too.

Let’s break this down a bit, though, and really analyze what is going on.

First of all, which type of person/family does your organization choose for these moments? It isn’t the person that was not served well by your program. It likely isn’t the person that did mediocre after being served by your program. You pick the superstar – the person/family that did unbelievably well, so much so that it is outside the norm. That “superstar” presents well and you would be happy to have them as the face of your programs. Problem is, you are presenting a false image. You are presenting the exception.

Related to this, you are often setting up a sample size of one or the sample size of a few. Politicians often do this:

“I met Jimmy on my way here today and he told me how the NewDawn Community Services provided him the skills to be good at financial management for the rest of his life. Now he has a job and manages his income without any help from others. We need to help other people become just like Jimmy and fund more programs like NewDawn Community Services.”

Is Jimmy’s experience typical? People confuse anecdotes like this with data. For all we know, Jimmy experienced success because of his own skills and attributes, completely independent of anything NewDawn did. We just don’t know. Understanding the effectiveness of any program is not determined by the one exception or only by one story.

Secondly, why would a person be eager to be profiled? They may want to share their story with peers and provide an example to others. Let’s, however, consider the alternative, though, which I have heard many, many times: they feel they owe you (your organization or a specific worker) for all that they have done for them. In other words, they feel they are reciprocating. The reciprocation mindset can have poor long-term impacts on people. They are not, therefore, doing it for themselves – they are doing it as payback.

When someone engages out of obligation or payback, they may not have been in a place where they are emotionally or psychologically ready to share. Perhaps, like me, you have seen these people break down into tears as they regale others with their life story and relive the sorry of the experience. Perhaps, like me, you may have seen these folks do well during an event like a promotion video for your website, and then a few months later they return to homelessness and feel even worse shame because they were held up in front of others with such high expectations. (I have been guilty of the latter and it haunts me to this day.)

Every time you bring someone out into a forum such as an Annual General Meeting, Fundraising Event, media event, etc. you create an environment where they can relive their trauma and experience of homelessness or the surrounding issues of her/his homelessness. You are not letting them recover from the experience if you bring them back into the experience. If your programs are intended to help people achieve greater independence and stability into community, then it is foolish and disingenuous to bring someone back to your organization for your own purposes that contradict your program’s intention.

“We help people achieve independence in their life and reintegrate into community.”

Follow that with trotting people back to your program to speak at events or to media and they are not reintegrating into community or achieving the fullness of independence? Instead of doing what you claimed to do, you are making them beholden to you.

Your organization probably claims to be trauma-informed. You likely claim to be person-centered. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear you say you provide services in a non-judgmental manner. And yet you potentially contradict all of that by asking service participants to have their story profiled or come and speak. There is nothing trauma-informed about creating an environment that is non-therapeutic for people to share their traumatic story – especially without intensive supports and preparation first. There is nothing person-centered about an approach that is really organization-centered or system-centered because you are trying to profile the work of your organization, not the achievements, per se, of all the persons supported by your organization. When you have the person’s story out in the public realm, you are asking people to judge them as successful and to deem your programs to be a success.

Want people to recover from homelessness? Let them work on recovery in housing. People want to share their story or give back? Make sure they have been supported through proper peer-support training, preparation and debriefing first, as well as after. And even then, create a forum where service participants have an equal opportunity to share her/his story, not the select few asked by your organization to come out and be involved.

Want to still provide a human face to your work and your organization’s accomplishments? Provide an opportunity for everyone to have their picture taken and present those photos in the likes of a collage, not just individuals. Tell real stories in your reports using stock photos, changing names, and even presenting cases as an amalgam, not an individual story. Put these accounts of success in context of the data of all people served so the audience can decide for herself how representative the story is of all people served. If you are going to engage people with media, while not recommended, it can be better if people are briefed before and when there is someone with extensive media training in the interview that can tell the reporter that certain questions are out of bounds or reminding the service participant they are not required to answer anything. Instead of having someone tell their story live in front of a room full of people at a fundraising event or Annual General Meeting, consider having a short play performed that weaves together the stories of various people served by the organization. Or consider a video montage of many different people that have been housed with many stories coming together and showing a broad range of experiences.

You don’t intend to harm your service participants further. Let them move forward in their life as a housed person. Stop bringing them back to tell their story of homelessness.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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