Avoiding the Jesus Complex: I just fed the 5000, and now you want to know what the outcomes were!?
This week’s blog entry is not concerned with some nitty-gritty issue of service delivery, but more with the assumptions behind why we do what we do.
Relax, this is not navel gazing for the sake of it.
I think these assumptions impact our ability to truly succeed at our mission of ending food insecurity and poor nutrition in America. Wouldn’t it be great if future generations could look back at ‘hunger’ and laugh scornfully (in that way that future generations do) about how in such a wealthy nation we were so wasteful and primitive in how we attended to the basic nutrition of all our people.
Let’s start by considering an email from Akron and Canton Foodbank CEO, Dan Flowers, sent around a couple of weeks back. With Dan’s permission, I am including an excerpt from his email. He writes:
Although I am 100% into doing everything we can to leverage our resources toward making lasting, measurable solutions and transformation possible for people, the “donor outcomes” push I sense does not entirely resonate with me and I’m not totally sure why. Maybe it’s because I’ve heard a lot of “what are you doing to get these people to start taking care of themselves” statements appear along similar philosophical lines. I don’t judge either way.
We do so many good things that we can measure and share. I agree we need to get better at both because there are a lot of people in a position to help that simply framing what we already believe and do in new and better ways can enroll. So we need to do that. Let’s talk about nutrition and public health, self-sufficiency and personal development. Let’s measure our impact in moving people in those directions…because we’ve been more or less doing that since day one and refining and sharing that can only help the cause.
In this, sometimes I wonder when “teach a man to fish” became the ultimate measurement of our duty, compassion, and obligation to people…when “give a man a fish” generally seems so much more noble, loving, and welcomed as I see it. Simply suggesting that I’m a “give the man a fish” advocate freaks people out these days. Or at least we don’t like to talk about the millions of American’s who simply need a fish…and always will.
My post is not really a response to Dan’s email, as I can’t really disagree with anything he says there. However it did get me thinking about some issues under the surface of what we do.
Certainly as organizations we are under pressure to prove the benefits of what we are doing like never before. I kind of like being challenged, it keeps me awake, but this is still a shock for many of us. We have been so used to no one questioning the basis of what we do – feeding people – that we almost don’t know how to respond effectively when they do. It can also bring out a righteous side to us, making us feel there might be something uncaring about someone who would dare question our activities, or judge us by conventional markers of business or organizational success.
I think my early experiences in the hunger arena, feeding the homeless, allowed me to clearly see the extremes of positive and negative response to what we were doing. Reactions to the homeless range from repulsion, to causing well-meaning folks to want to smother them with love, to evoking visceral feelings of fear of the ‘I’m just a couple of paychecks away from that’ variety. Yes, homeless people push all the buttons.
Working with them, I had so many people tell me that I was doing God’s work, that I began to agree with them. Of course logically, this meant that if people created obstacles to our organization’s success…then they weren’t doing God’s work. Maybe they were doing the devil’s work (but hey, let’s leave the public health inspectors out of this – just kidding).
Many of our volunteer groups were from churches (and indeed the majority of our member agencies at the Foodbank are faith-based). Faith swirls around the area of hunger deeper than most others. Every faith group has their tenet connected to feeding the hungry. As a practicing Buddhist Episcopalian (yes it is a legit mash-up) I could clearly see that I was beginning to suffer a little bit from a Jesus complex. Not so much on a personal level, because it was hard to stay unaware of my numerous shortcomings, but on an organizational level. I have to say that I come up against this a fair bit with some other non-profit organizations, even those that are not explicitly religious in their intent. We are good hearted people doing good hearted things. How can you question us?
What would Jesus do if they wanted to measure his outcomes not his outputs? Would he flip over the money lender’s table in front of the temple or would he sit down at the table, push forward his business card, and talk organizational symmetry with some potential corporate donors to the cause? His Powerpoint might show that his nonprofit has been meeting his numbers by feeding the five thousand every day. “You want the water turned into wine? We have a processing kitchen that’s got that covered, and it’s creating sustainable jobs too!”
But the righteous approach only gets us so far. I started this blogging journey because I seriously questioned whether the food bank network is really geared up to solve the issue of hunger and whether we truly believe in our hearts that it is possible. This has led me to believe that more of the same is a road to nowhere, and that a new direction is required. Too many things are changing, both in the quantity and nature of the food we are receiving and the environment we are delivering service in.
A big part of the problem is the food bank network’s inability to measure success in achieving our goal. It is great to put more and more pounds of food out there (if it is not pounds of soda and junk, of course) but where is it leading? If our goal is to get people out of food insecurity, aren’t those figures the ones we should be judged on? In my time in food banking, I have never heard a food bank crowing about its successes in terms of number of people who no longer need their services. Is it modesty? (from a group of admittedly charming and modest professionals) Or is it because people are afraid that if they say there are less mouths to feed then their fundraising and grants will get cut?
Sorry, but this seems a pretty basic issue. This is one reason why I am so insistent on moving us in the preventative healthcare direction. If our success can be measured around moving people to health, then this is a long-term and ongoing goal that will not go away. (The funding doesn’t have to go away when a recession does – heck there might even be more funding available). This means we are investing in health, not investing in circling around the same old broken ‘hunger gap’ environment.
I want and need charitable dollars for my organization, but I also need healthcare dollars. These dollars represent a very shrewd investment in the ‘people infrastructure’ of the nation. Hey, I just coined another bullshit phrase for the social sector! People infrastructure.
What I mean by this is the human equivalent of the roads and bridges that keep things moving. We can’t keep the people moving and running to maximum capacity unless they are nutritionally healthy. More and more studies are showing that the food which people consume is the number one issue. Exercise is important, but not as important by itself as originally suspected. So food banks find themselves at ground zero of being able to change the health of the nation. We can’t fumble such an opportunity, because it may not come back again.
As Dan points out in his email, there will always be those who will just need a fish – seniors living alone or incapacitated, those wrestling with mental conditions, or a crippled sense of self or even those who want to tell us to take our education and empowerment, fold it five times and stick it where the sun don’t shine. (I am pretty fond of this last group. It suggests an unbroken spirit.) It is just as important to provide food for these clients as it is for those who want to engage in a deeper way with us.
Nevertheless, I still believe that virtually everyone can benefit from more than a bag of groceries and a caring word. Most people want to be engaged with, and for their world to crack open and widen, in however small a way. So attaching food distribution to wrap-around services where clients can have the chance to be engaged in another way are essential. I am not just talking about the ‘work on your resume and get a job’ type programs. There can be an art program, a music program. Anything to spark the engine or keep an overloaded engine running. Clients don’t have to accept anything other than food, but I think we lessen our commitment to the value of their lives if we don’t offer it.
It is my honest belief that people walk away from a food distribution (no matter how kind the people running it are) having been disempowered in some way. Our food banks have some programs run by kind volunteers who want to show love and support to recipients and some programs run by cranky volunteers who want to make recipients feel small – yet I think the long-term result is exactly the same. The love that clients get from being cared for in a charitable way is gone even quicker than the bag of food they leave with. They are also left feeling a little less able to look after themselves. (Not everyone feels this way, of course. If you are a senior who has given a lot to the community, you feel pretty justified in receiving whatever small amounts of food can be given in return.)
Dan refers to (presumably) potential donors who talk of ‘these people’ in a disparaging way and want to get rid of them or hide them away. The ‘Them and Us.’
But who cares what these people say, because they aren’t really interested in helping us. The thing we have to watch out for is that we are not labeling clients in what amounts to merely a mirror version of that same reductionist approach. Instead of ‘these’ people, we instead have ‘those’ people who can’t look after themselves. I had a conversation with one food bank Executive Director, who was down on the concept of teaching clients to grow some of their own food. This person’s attitude was that ‘poor’ people already have enough to do, and that we were burdening them by shifting the responsibility onto them to come up with more food themselves.
Because it’s fun, because it generates personal and family energy as well as food. It gives you a stake in your own little food chain rather than being told to pull up your bootstraps from one side or receive the well meaning but transitory hand-out from the other side. So I welcome all the ‘teaching a man to fish’ stuff. It is vital.
I don’t think we can only pull the ‘you should support us because you’re human and we are all human’ card. We clearly haven’t ended hunger by taking the approaches that we have. We want to appeal to people’s emotions and their intellect. One alone gets us nowhere. Winning both is what is going to help us get out of this godforsaken hunger loop.