presents!” by carobe

December 12, 2017; Atlanta Journal-Constitution

One of the challenges of nonprofits who serve the poor is how to get people what they need without forcing them to sacrifice their dignity or putting their poverty on parade for a photo op. This is especially true during the holidays, when the spotlight is focused on food and toy drives for the poor and when many nonprofits make a final fundraising push for the year where those compelling photos, videos, and stories can add a big boost to their bottom line (and hopefully enable them to help more people).

One organization that seems to have struck the right balance is Focused Community Strategies in Atlanta with its Pride for Parents holiday toy store.

“If you’ve ever been made to feel looked down upon for taking a handout for your kids in front of your kids, this story might just lift your spirits,” wrote Gracie Bonds Staples in her column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The basic business model of Pride for Parents is this: Focused Community Strategies (FCS) accepts toy donations, then sells them in its store at a discount of 30 to 50 percent. The proceeds go back to FCS’s work, which includes affordable housing, jobs, and other neighborhood programs.

That community loop is one reason why Tanisha Corporal enjoys shopping there.

“It’s a great program,” Corporal said in an interview with Gracie Bonds Staples. “It made such a difference in my life, and it feels good knowing that just by shopping there it’s having a ripple effect in the community. Some days they even have volunteers who wrap your presents. Anything that saves you money and time when you’re a single mom, I’m like goodness, yes.”

This was not always the way things worked. When the toy program was started in 1978, it had a more traditional adopt-a-family format, with volunteers buying gifts off family wish lists. That seemed like a nice way to go about things until the volunteers noticed that when they delivered the gifts, the parents would look down in shame or even try to sneak out of the house because their kids could see that these gifts were not from them.

“While everyone was well-intentioned, it exposed parents’ inability to provide in front of their kids,” said Katie Delp, FCS’s executive director.

NPQ has reported on the struggle to find the right balance between meeting basic needs while preserving the dignity of clients. For example, in June, NPQ reported on the Fed40 app by the organization Feeding Children Everywhere. The app, modeled on takeout food and meal subscription service apps in the private sector, allows people with low incomes to have food discreetly delivered to their homes—saving them trips to the food banks.

This is not just about saving transportation or other costs, it’s about getting food to people who need it, but who don’t want the world to know they can’t afford it. Such efforts are key in a culture where people who are poor are shamed for accepting support—as is obvious to anyone who has stood in line behind someone at the grocery store paying with food stamps while people tsk-tsk about what they’re buying or how long it’s taking (see this parody of that in The Onion).

The Fed40 app requires filling out a short form about income eligibility. At the Pride for Parents store, they don’t require even that. Some people are just there for the deals and they know that.

“Even if a few folk come in and work the system,” Delp told Gracie Bonds Staples of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “it generates revenue that goes back in the community, so that’s never a bad thing. We’d rather err on that side than ask people to prove their poverty.”—Nancy Young