How Understanding PTSD Can Revolutionize Nonprofits
On a recent Saturday morning sitting in our favorite reading spot, our back deck overlooking our small lake, the Beloved became annoying. He was reading a book, and every few unpredictably spaced minutes—water torture-style—he blurted a phrase from a book. He was so very excited I finally gave in and grabbed the book. Two hours later, I was as excited as he.
The book told me how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) identifies the duty of nonprofits, and how that identification can lead to the unparalleled success of nonprofits. Below I plagiarize (with the confidence of the married) the work of my human behavior expert husband, Otis Fulton.
Take it away, Otis:
In his new book, "Tribe," Sebastian Junger, war correspondent and bestselling author of "The Perfect Storm," addresses the issue of PTSD—something he experienced firsthand after returning from war zones in Europe and the Middle East.
Like most people, I had a pretty unsophisticated concept of PTSD before reading the book. When I was a kid, I spent some holidays with an uncle who suffered from “shell shock,” from his experiences in Korea. But it turns out that my assumptions about the topic are far from reality. For example, you don’t have to experience combat to suffer from PTSD. In fact, more than 80 percent of the psychiatric casualties during the first Gulf War were from support troops who took no incoming fire. Roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability, although only 10 percent of the military experiences combat.
So clearly, direct exposure to danger can’t be identified as the cause. What is happening to these men and women that results in the U.S. spending $4 billion annually for PTSD disability compensation? Junger explains that the problem isn’t trauma experienced on the battlefield; rather it is re-entry into society.
Studies from many countries have shown that recovery from war heavily depends on the society to which one belongs. American soldiers suffer PTSD at roughly twice the rate of British soldiers who were in combat with them.
Junger argues that the incidence of PTSD experienced upon returning to society is a barometer of the level of community that veterans experience.
In contrast to American vets, the Israeli Defense Forces have a PTSD rate as low as 1 percent. In Israel, military experience is seen as a “shared public meaning” that is acknowledged by most of the society.
Upon returning to civilian life, which is apparently different here than in places such as England, American veterans often express nostalgia for their military experience, and many wind up volunteering for multiple deployments. What is it that they find so satisfying about their time stationed far away from the lives they lived before? Simply stated, what the military offers to these men and women is a tribe. In the military, even in support units, a soldier is almost never alone.
Quoting an artilleryman, “For the first time in [our] lives ... we were in a tribal sort of situation where we could help each other without fear.” That is what is missing when people return from the service—the community. Not the danger, but the unity that these things engender.
When they return to the U.S., we valorize our vets with words and posters and signs, but we don’t give them what’s really important to them, the thing that means one is valuable to society—we don’t give them jobs. As one veteran put it, “All the praise in the world doesn’t mean anything if you’re not recognized by society as someone who can contribute valuable labor.” A job makes you a valuable member of your tribe.
A useful frame to view the experience of veterans is something psychologists call self-determination theory, about which we have written in previous blogs.
Research shows that people who lead satisfying lives have three basic needs fulfilled:
- They feel competent at what they do.
- They feel authentic in their lives.
- They feel connected to others.
The military provides the opportunity to fulfill these needs in spades—training young people in new skills and giving them huge levels of responsibility as part of a closely knit group working toward a greater good.
As Junger puts it, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact, they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
Otis recognized the potential power of the nonprofit from way over in the social science field. We in nonprofit can make people feel necessary. We can give them purpose. We can give them ways to show competence, and to be part of something bigger than themselves. We can make them happier than they were before while accomplishing important goals for humanity.
Being pushy recruiters, asking too much, giving them unpaid jobs, not presuming they will say no, asking for even more money—with all these actions from which we shy away, we can make people happier.
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.