Negative Stereotypes About Your Clients

One of the topics I recently discussed on The Nonprofit Jenni Show podcast was the negative stereotypes that often surround controversial cause areas. For example, you may work at a nonprofit organization who helps convicted felons prove their innocence, or maybe one that serves recurring drug addicts who have been in and out of rehab several times. When a long-held societal belief about your client population is affecting your nonprofit’s ability to raise funds or garner community support, what do you do?

Please note: I highly encourage you to listen to the Negative Stereotypes podcast episode before reading this blog! My blog lists some great “action items” for you to take after you listen to the podcast, plus additional resources you can check out if you have further questions. However, my podcast guests give so much additional rich information which isn’t included in the article you’re about the read.

My first guest was Nahed Zehr, the Executive Director of the Faith & Culture Center. The FCC’s mission is to “integrat[e] communities across divides through development of meaningful relationships. We work to foster greater understanding, appreciation, and cooperation between communities in Middle Tennessee across lines of faith, race, culture, and ethnicity.” Nahed told me about some of the methods the FCC uses to engage audiences who may be holding onto negative stereotypes surrounding Islam and other unfamiliar ideas:

  • Every year, the FCC hosts the “Our Muslim Neighbor” conference to address relevant social issues surrounding the Muslim faith. At this conference, Muslims with all different viewpoints on their religion are encouraged to share their experiences with an audience filled with individuals who all hold unique religious opinions.

  • On a smaller scale, the FCC hosts several dinner events each year called “A Seat at the Table.” With each of these gatherings, a volunteer hosts up to 14 people in their home for dinner, with 6-7 being their own friends (who are usually non-Muslim) and the other 6-7 representing Muslim guests invited by the FCC. A professional moderator facilitates a discussion where everyone can ask questions and be honest about their religious and ideological beliefs in a constructive manner.

  • Nahed emphasizes the importance of not only providing education on your topic of choice, but also knowledge and information presented by diverse parties which invites your audience into a working conversation.

  • She also points out that it isn’t quite fair to label people in broad groups. In the same way that every Christian holds their own unique perspective and beliefs about Christianity, Muslims each offer a viewpoint on Islam. In light of this fact, the FCC is very open in their marketing messages that many diverse opinions will be showcased and welcomed at every event they host.

  • Nahed encourages open honesty from every angle--especially about your nonprofit organization’s own shortcomings. It’s important to acknowledge that everyone is growing and desires to become better. For example, Nahed regularly shares her story about how she used to be afraid of homeless men, and only worked past her own bigotry through extended conversations with this population.

  • The FCC always tries to engage people’s hearts, as opposed to their heads. As Nahed wisely points out, we make connections with people through the heart.

Next, I spoke with Allison Plattsmier of NeedLink. NeedLink helps “families, seniors, and people facing an unexpected crisis to avoid homelessness and stay connected to power, water, and natural gas service.” Allison told me how NeedLink addresses the common belief that people who can’t afford to pay their bills have generally done something in the past to deserve their difficult situation.

  • NeedLink’s first approach is to explain why certain populations are in need of their services. For example, some people simply don’t have a way of generating more money for themselves, like retired seniors who live on a fixed income, or those with disabilities who can’t find higher paying jobs. Others have been stuck in “systemic inequality,” which can take generations to overcome.

  • The organization uses storytelling, as opposed to more confrontational methods, to provide this education. Staff, board members, and volunteers are regularly given stories they can share about particular clients who have recently been assisted by NeedLink, such as one woman whose husband left her while she was on unpaid maternity leave at a very low-paying job.

  • Allison suggests providing FAQ information to your nonprofit’s representatives, including your staff, board members, and regular volunteers, so they all know how to properly address concerns that may be presented by members of the community.

  • It’s important to invite the community into an educational conversation by asking questions that may provide a perspective switch, instead of alienating potential supporters with arguments.

My final guest was Rachel Wilkins, the Development Director for Safe Haven Family Shelter. Safe Haven’s mission is to “lead our community’s efforts to house, support, empower, and advocate for families experiencing homelessness.” My question for Rachel was very similar to the one I asked Allison--how do you address the widespread belief that homeless people are just lazy and don’t deserve help?

  • First, Safe Haven educates potential supports on the many diverse causes of homelessness. For example, sometimes people are homeless because they don’t have access to reliable transportation which can take them to work every day. Some do have jobs, but they may not make livable wages, or be able to find affordable housing because the supply is shrinking rapidly here in Nashville.

  • One educational tool Safe Haven uses is a poverty simulation, where participants from the community are assigned a character facing a set of challenging, real-life circumstances, and then are challenged to try and survive for a month in that situation.

  • Safe Haven hones in on one simple, impactful message through their marketing efforts: “We keep families with children together.”

  • Rachel also suggests that you focus on the solutions your nonprofit provides to the community, as opposed to focusing on problems which may feel insurmountable. How does your programming solve a problem and improve society, both now and in the long-term?

  • Finally, your organization should be sure to accurately represent your client population. Rachel acknowledges that it may be difficult to find clients who are willing to have their photos or stories published in marketing materials, but she explains that it’s worth putting in the extra effort to ensure you avoid perpetuating a harmful stereotype.

Be sure to subscribe to the Nonprofit Jenni Show on your favorite podcast platform for more marketing, development, and management advice!