A Problem to be Solved or a Gift to Develop? Framing Your Proposals

Curt's Cafe, Evanston, IL

Curt's Cafe, Evanston, IL

“Why do you think you deserve our money?” This, in essence, is what people like you and me, congregations, foundations, businesses, and government entities want to know when you come to them with an open palm.

And so it becomes natural to respond by demonstrating the deep need you are trying to meet, your super ability to meet it, and the perfect match between your goals and theirs. After all, their donation is really their form of an investment in you and your project.

The grant seeker then makes an earnest effort to show just how terrible the problem is that they are trying to solve. The more poverty, violence, illiteracy, illness, and injustice, the better.

But isn’t this a race to the bottom, a perverse incentive to maintain a state of dire need and a chasm between the haves and the have-nots? This is what John McKnight pointed out in an essay, Do No Harm: Policy Options that Meet Human Needs, that is as relevant – and too little known – now as when it was published in 1989. I read this essay while in graduate school and had the privilege of collaborating with Prof. McKnight, co-founder of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, wearing many hats since then.

McKnight’s thesis is quite simple and based on a metaphor for ethical medical practice: we heal for keeps only when we reinforce what’s right in our bodies and spirits, not by filling our “emptiness” with (expensive) drugs, procedures and services that only addict us to our neediness. Put another way, we rise in confidence and ability when others and we ourselves reinforce what’s good about us. Weakness does not heal; strength does.

I am currently engaged with several organizations in the Chicago area that are focused on restorative justice for youth and young adults, that is, alternatives to punitive practices like prison, school expulsion, and scarlet letter-type branding that prevents these young people, especially those who are black and brown, from getting a job or apartment. For the Addie Wyatt Center for Nonviolence Training, this is through supporting a culture of peace in schools and communities. At Curt’s Café, this is through job training, coaching, and socializing. At the McGaw YMCA, this is through after school programs like maker spaces, mentoring, and field trips.

“Gangs are nothing but young people who are disconnected from adult society,” McKnight said to a group of us from the Addie Wyatt Center last summer. How different is his description from the more typical depiction of gangs as, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, “a group of three or more individuals who engage in criminal activity” and who as youth, “are more likely to engage in substance abuse and high-risk behavior which leads to a wide range of potentially long-term health and social consequences.”

With depersonalized frames like these, many policymakers, political candidates and nonprofit organizations fall into this habit of constructing their “asks” with language that turns young people into actuarial probabilities of waywardness based on geography, race, and class, and requiring, as does the National Referral Service mentioned above, “prevention, intervention, and suppression tactics.” Compare this language with that of Legacy Leaders International, a grassroots youth empowerment organization I assisted last year on Chicago’s west side:

Legacy Leaders believes in the inherent capacity of today’s youth to be confident, purposeful, and conscientious leaders within their surroundings.

There is no mention of gangs and violence, even as these challenges are ever present for about 95% of the youth it serves, instead choosing to focus on the gifts of young people themselves.

This kind of positive language also serves to erase the “us” and “them” division that defines the giver as a Lord or Lady Bountiful and the receiver as gatekeeper to the deficient. The emphasis is, as I wrote for Curt’s Café, “restoring youth to community and community to youth.” A grant from this perspective is not to build an institution, but to build a society. The grant becomes an instrument of restoration and healing as part of a collective we’re-all-in-this-together approach that does justice to all parties.

An “asset-based” perspective recognizes that encouraging individual talent and ability is far more salutary in solving poverty and isolation than emphasizing deprivation and need. Rather than provide “treatment” or “remediation” – which perpetuates the “other-ing” of young people – groups like those I mentioned are not only dedicated to an approach that integrates and empowers, but describe themselves and their work in this way.

Take a look at the language you use to describe your work or the community you serve. Does your description express the unconditional empathy you feel for a good friend, or does it define a two-dimensional character that needs correction?  When you humanize your subject, you seat together at a common table those whom you are serving and those you are inviting in.