Why We Do What We Do: Willing to Be Taken, In Order to Give
I will do damn near anything to avoid hurtful political conversations with my family. This year, with so much potential for such conversations, I volunteered to help house homeless women in our church from Dec. 23 to Dec. 31. That pretty much cleared the social calendar of any kind of gathering that could cause ill will. And it allowed me to serve a community that I see as misunderstood.
With this service, I also delivered to myself a sorely needed dose of contentment about my chosen profession.
I’d like to share with you just one story from one lady we are housing. Last night around 9 p.m. a young woman stopped by the church kitchen and leaned through the serving window.
“Miss Katrina,” she said. “I want you to know how much I appreciate you people, and what you’re doing for me.”
This was odd, as moments before, I had seen her shake her head “no” to a request from another lady to carry pitchers of water to the sleeping area.
She said, “I know you saw me just be unhelpful. I want to tell you why."
“My mother told me not to entertain too many men, and to avoid bad company,” she said. “I think I have to be careful to avoid bad company here, and sometimes that means I can’t interact at all.”
I understood what she was saying, as I had seen evidence of her correct judgment already.
This woman clearly had benefited from a good upbringing. She was dignified, yet respectful. She was helpful. She wasn’t greedy, and often put others’ needs before her own. She went on, with questions from me, to tell me about her life. Here it is, paraphrased:
I lived with my mother and brother. For about 4 years in my youth, my brother sexually abused me. Did my mother know? I don’t know. I felt it was my fault. The first time it happened, my cousin told me it was because of the sleeping gown I was wearing. But she gave me that gown because she outgrew it.
I tried not to think about it, and just tried to do what I was supposed to do to be good. I was good in school, and didn’t get in trouble. My brother moved away, and life got better. I took care of my mom and my grandmother over time, because both were in bad health at one time or another. I worked at good jobs, like assistant manager and supervisor. I did all right, living with my family.
Then, my brother wanted to move back in. I told my mother I couldn’t live with him. She wouldn’t tell him no. The day he moved in, I moved out. I had to get my own place with no roommate. So then, I was living hand to mouth. I lost my job, and a missed paycheck later, I was homeless.
I sleep in churches at night. During the days, I look for work. And now, I see a counselor. She talks to me a lot about my brother, my own self-esteem, my efforts to get a job. She tells me I already did the hard thing, removing myself from the situation. I hope she is right. I have enough experience to get any $7-an-hour job. But the problem is, once I take one, then I can’t look for a $15-an-hour job. And you can’t pay rent on $7 an hour. I am holding out, hoping that I can land a better job that helps me make enough to pay rent, but I’m anxious not taking the first thing I get. I just don’t know what to do, and I want a home so bad.
Thank you for helping me.
It’s easy to paint the homeless as less-than, as lazy, as weak. My experience with them does not support that idea. No one wants to be homeless. So many of their stories sound like this one. But even if every single other person we are serving at my church this week was taking advantage of us and just loves sleeping on mats at a different church every week, to serve this one woman would make it worthwhile.
If you are raising money to make something better, this is who you are: someone willing to be taken, in order to give.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising” and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.