Neighborhoods as Petting Zoos: Bad Idea

It is one of the more distasteful (to me) traditions in which philanthropy engages: the group tour of suffering as site visit. This comes up because of a story that I covered on the newswire this morning. A report on the Battalion for Wounded Warriors in Camp Lejeune describes visits from some charities creating a “petting zoo” atmosphere that some Marines objected to. Some of the organizers asked to have some of the Marines with more obvious wounds (burns, amputations, and such) participate in their events for greater impact. In the end, some of the charities were banned from entry.

We know that many are becoming more sensitive to the morality of such behavior, but we are interested in any guidelines that nonprofits have instituted to ensure that exploitation does not occur in the name of fundraising or marketing.

Meanwhile, I have my own story (which may be a bit mean). In my early twenties, I worked in a storefront that addressed, in part, issues of prisoners and their families, so a lot of released prisoners—some very much down on their luck—would drop by. One man was an untreated schizophrenic who would sit on the couch and talk about the Russians and Jews and all of the waves of energy being directed at him in an attempt to make him do things. He was a small, older man who was eventually taken under the wing of homeless health advocates who helped to get him somewhat stabilized. But the couch was essentially his couch for a while. Then one day, we hosted a group site visit for a funder and some of the participants sat on “his” couch. We noticed a lot of shifting around and tried to crank up our presentation to better grab their attention, little knowing that we had competition in the grabbing department because that couch was about as full of lice as one could imagine.


To the funder’s credit, we got the grant anyway, but at the time, the episode seemed to epitomize the other-worldliness of the “bus tour of devastated _______” practice.

Anyway, your thoughts and guidelines?

  • Saras

    This is such an interesting practice. In some ways, the neighborhood ‘petting zoo’ is simply an experiential exaggeration of what many nonprofits do on a daily basis. Many nonprofits handpick their ‘poster child’ upon which they tout in their marketing materials, professional photos, media, and other pieces to get donors to cry, give and bequeath. If you think about the principle of it all, it all kind of goes in the same bucket. I definitely agree, Ruth. There needs to be some sort of ‘best-practice’ standard set so the very clients we are here to help are not exploited in the process of ‘getting out the mission’.