OK Internet, I’m going to get on my soapbox.
Today I received something in the mail from PETA. I’m not sure how they got my address, as I’ve never made a donation, attended an event, followed them on social media, etc. I do contribute to quite a number of animal-focused nonprofits, and so I expect that somewhere along the way my name has wound up in a publication and PETA took note. Regardless, the envelope that I received didn’t look like a typical donation appeal. In fact, it was a plain, stark envelope that said “SECOND NOTICE” across the front, as though it was a past due bill or something equally important. I’m very Type-A about paying things on time, so I was immediately suspicious, but I opened it anyway.
Inside were a number of very gruesome, graphic photos depicting an animal who had been experimented on in a laboratory, supported by government funding. There was an accompanying note explaining, in detail, exactly what had been done to this poor animal. It was awful, and it broke my heart. PETA also, so helpfully, included a donation form.
I want to be clear: I do not condone the mistreatment of animals. I never have. It is one of the many reasons why I support multiple charities who work to protect animals. But I also did not appreciate receiving a deeply unsettling photo and note from a charity that I’ve never interacted with before.
I understand the need to emphasize the importance of an organization’s mission and the impact a donation can make. I HAVE BEEN A NONPROFIT DEVELOPMENT PROFESSIONAL FOR NEARLY 7 YEARS. I understand this better than most.
But as a nonprofit professional, a donor, and a human being who (most days at least) cares a lot about making the world a better place, I have NEVER understood why charities think it’s OK to exploit a tragedy in order to make a buck. I DO believe that it’s important not to sugarcoat the ugly things nonprofits are fighting against and trying to solve. I respect campaigns that are honest and bold. I understand that willful ignorance doesn’t make a problem go away. But I think sometimes nonprofits go too far and try to guilt, shame, or upset a donor into donating. (Or, in the case of PETA, dupe a donor into even opening the envelope in the first place!) If you don’t think this is a problem, Google “poverty porn nonprofits” (I promise you won’t get any weird results!). There are numerous articles written on how charities sometimes cross the line from compelling into exploitative.
PETA is not going to get my money. They sent a couple of distressing photos to a potential donor with whom they’ve never had any other contact, and perhaps more significantly, to one who IS ALREADY CONVINCED that animal cruelty is NOT OK. I didn’t need to see and read about a story I cannot change to believe that.
If PETA wanted my money, they should have paid more attention to the campaigns that the animal charities I do support run. These campaigns often tell graphic, upsetting, and REAL stories. They don’t shy away from the hard stuff. But they also make me feel like I can make a difference. Instead of telling me about an animal whom I cannot help, they tell me about one that I can.
Fellow nonprofit professionals – I implore you – be better than “poverty porn.” Empower your donors AND those who benefit from your services and tell stories that are raw and real and sometimes ugly, but that are also told with dignity. And donors, volunteers, board members, etc. – help keep us nonprofits on target. Sometimes we get so invested in our missions that it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.
I don’t believe that any nonprofit (PETA included) sets out with the intent of turning off donors or being thoughtless towards the people or animals they support. Nobody sticks it out in nonprofit work unless they deeply care about what they’re doing, because frankly, it’s emotionally taxing work and it won’t make you rich. But sometimes we get so deeply immersed in the urgency and importance of what we’re doing that we don’t do it as compassionately as we could.
So if you’re still reading, People of the Internet, please be a friend to nonprofits and support causes you care about. We’re doing really important work in an era where our services are in more demand than ever. We see stuff like those pictures I got in the mail every day. We need your support. But we also need your diligence. Help us to tell stories that are both compelling AND empowering, that are real AND respectful.
Gonna go shred those pictures and hug my cats now. Thanks for listening.
P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure and fairness: PETA did also include tips on how to “Turn Your Love for Animals into Lifesaving Action,” as well as petition postcards urging various government agencies to stop this cruelty. They also included a warning/justification for the unsettling images: “I believe that the people who approve the funding for experiments on animals should be faced with the consequences of their actions.” And they did inform donors that “your donation can prevent living, feeling beings from suffering like Double Trouble, whose memory we hold dear and in whose name we will save other animals from nightmarish experiments.” Unfortunately, none of this verbiage is visible until after you look at all the images.
*Main image via Pexels.com