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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Are We Entitled to Know?

A New York Times editorial this week called out different states’ approaches to determining worthiness for state-administered aid. Florida’s Governor, Rick Scott, signed a law in May requiring those who receive TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) to submit a urine sample and pass a urine test. While that determination is currently being held up through the federal courts, the sentiment behind it is apparent.

What the New York Times’ editorial calls “punishing poverty,” I would call “punishing need,” and it calls up for me a number of insights and concerns I’ve heard from members of our nation’s nonprofit and philanthropic sectors this week at the excellent Independent Sector conference here in Chicago. While the Benevolent model is clearly a highly- validated one - with local nonprofit Validators providing clear statements about the ways in which their clients are striving and on the path to meet their goals – the question of personal revelation remains.

Several people have asked me how much each Benevolent member who wishes to post a need will have to reveal about his or her self. How much personal history will we require in order to post the need, and how much will be necessary to make the potential donor feel secure in filling that person’s need? My response remains the same – Benevolent members have the latitude to reveal as much or as little about themselves and their circumstances as they see fit.

I am given pause, however, by the presumption, both in Rick Scott’s legislation and in the well-meaning queries I’ve received, that in order to be entitled or even eligible to get help from another person, from the State or from a nonprofit, we must be prepared to bare our souls, reveal all our past indiscretions, and own up to our faults.

It made me think about situations in which someone has wanted or needed something I had the power to provide, like a job. When I interview candidates for positions, I don’t ask them if they’ve ever done drugs. I don’t ask them whether they’re taking medication, and I certainly don’t ask them if they’ve been a victim of domestic violence. I ask them, instead, about their personal goals, about the skills and exposure they hope to gain over the coming years, and about their approach to work, responsibility, and collaboration. Basically, I ask job candidates forward-facing questions – questions about where they’re going and how they hope to get there.

If we’re lucky, a job candidate and I will find a common direction and complementary set of needs – the candidate a need for growth and challenge, and my organization a need for the skills and energies the candidate can bring. It is my hope that rather than looking for a deep revelation of past missteps from those who seek our help, we will focus on the path forward our Benevolent members have set for themselves, and look for a new kind of complementarity.

The complementarity I’m referring to here is the way in which giving meets a need for the donor – a very personal and intimate need. If we can find individuals whose need for financial help and willingness to share their stories and their goals meets the needs of those who seek to understand and gain from that introduction into the life and onto the path of another, then we will have met a set of complementary needs.

Similarly, trust is a complementary phenomenon. In the case of Benevolent members, both the donors and the members with needs will want to find a comfortable place of mutual trust – the donors trusting that the individuals are doing their utmost to move forward on their life paths and the people exposing their needs trusting that the details and intimacies they choose to reveal will be held met with respect.

How much does each person – the person who gives and the person who receives – need to expose about himself or herself in this equation? The answer will reveal itself over time and testing of the Benevolent model and platform, but it is my deep hope that we, as a Benevolent community, can refrain from the tendency to ask of those with a need more than that person feels comfortable sharing.

Whatever Benevolent’s members who post their needs have faced or however they might have stumbled in the past is not the focus of our drive to help them today. Today, we focus on individuals’ goals, circumstances, systems of support, and paths forward.

Every adult makes choices every day. Often, we make the wrong ones. When we find ourselves – consciously or unconsciously – starting to expect more revelation from a person in need than we would be comfortable revealing about ourselves, I hope we’ll each pause and re-locate that part of us that respects and sees the common humanity between us.

- Megan Kashner, Founder & CEO