And Running a Nonprofit That Way
by Laura L. Finley
“If I had been any weaker than I am I would have probably committed suicide after talking to the person on the hotline.”
No human being should feel so unwanted, so desperate as the women who made the statements above. Even more deplorable is that the comments were made by women seeking to become free from abusive partners. Already the victims of manipulation and control, these women need help, not condescension. They need support, not derision. Of all the places they should be able to find that, a domestic violence crisis center ought to be one.
Yet as has been documented elsewhere, these services have become increasingly bureaucratized. Less like a grassroots, people-centered movement, oftentimes these nonprofits look more like the corporate world, with its hierarchies and cutthroat strategies. Many nonprofits today have allowed funding to drive their work, thus may provide only the services that conservative funders support. In a dramatic about-face from the original domestic violence movement, advocates at domestic violence centers often do not see themselves as political activists but instead as (often thankless) employees. In fact, they are often prohibited by funders from engaging in any political activity. The result is that services are sometimes being delivered in a cold, non-supportive manner. This leaves women feeling, at best, like a burden on the system. At worst, in contributes to their trauma and re-victimizes them.
Lest readers think I am picking on domestic violence shelters — that is not my intent. These shelters do provide important services, albeit in ways that I feel can be improved. These same problems are true in other nonprofits that should be providing human services but that often seem to forget the humanity in their service provision. This essay will focus on domestic violence shelters simply because that has been my personal experience.
It doesn’t have to be this way. And sometimes, it isn’t. Creative nonprofits offer a vision of how to operate that puts human beings first. Below, I profile just one of these as a way to illustrate human-centered service that works, I offer these comments with two goals in mind: One, that readers begin critically thinking about the type of services we offer to people in need; and two, that readers recognize the importance of being human when providing said services.
No More Tears (NMT) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in South Florida. Started just four years ago, NMT has helped 92 women and their children get and stay free from abuse. It is entirely volunteer-run. A team of dedicated interns, volunteers, and board members work with founder and President Somy Ali to provide immediate, individualized services to women in need. Services might include rent and moving assistance, help with legal and medical fees, acquisition of food stamps and other state resources, transportation, childcare, and educational support. Many of the women NMT has served are immigrants who need legal help to acquire status, English instruction and assistance finding work.
What makes NMT so unique, though, is not just the services that are provided but how they are provided. First, NMT begins providing whatever services a specific individual needs immediately. Although other shelters may try to do so, they are increasingly over-capacity and thus often have waiting lists for housing and therapy. When a victim in need is placed on a waiting list, it tells her that her needs are not critical. Given that timing is essential for victims to leave abusers for good, having to wait for needed services might just mean she stays with an abuser longer.
Second, NMT’s services are individualized to meet each victim’s needs. While many shelters say they operate from an empowerment-based approach, my experience has been that this is largely lip-service. Too often, victims are told what they must do in order to receive the help they need. Advocates are not always well-versed in community resources such that an individual’s need to be safe from abuse gets divorced from the myriad social issues that impact it, such as community violence, poverty, housing, and racism. Even the notion of staying in a shelter, albeit a good one for some (given that space is available), is not suitable in some cases. Shelters are not always located conveniently, which necessitates the victim and typically her children uprooting their entire lives. Victims from different ethnic and national groups many times are very uncomfortable with the idea of living communally, in particular if they do not speak the language.
By contrast, NMT helps victims acquire safe housing in the location of their choice. This not only allows them to live in the geographic location in which they are most comfortable (for whatever reason), but it allows the victim to have a choice in the type of housing and how she lives. Securing safe and desirable housing is just the first step in truly allowing these women to be in charge of their own lives.
Third, the manner in which services are provided by NMT volunteers differs from what I have seen and what the opening quotes suggest is sometimes true of other services. My experience has been that advocates sometimes look down on the victims they are serving. I have seen employees at shelters make sarcastic comments about survivors in front of other survivors. I have been told awful stories from victims about the cold, bureaucratic environment in shelters that made them feel unwanted and, as one woman put it, “about as good as the cockroaches running through the shelter.”
NMT operates far differently. Perhaps it is because we are all volunteers. But I think not. I think it stems from the grassroots structure of the organization and the leadership exemplified by Somy Ali. Somy personally meets with each survivor and is, in essence, the front line of services. She devotes all her time to NMT and her socially conscious business, So-Me Designs, which helps fund NMT. She spends her days making phone calls, driving survivors to appointments, sitting with them in court hearings, watching their children, and simply listening to them. She is the epitome of human services. In sum, I believe it is not just what NMT does but how we do it that has prevented any of the 92 women we have helped from returning to abusers.
In order to create a better world, we must model our humanity to everyone, including those in need. I believe No More Tears is a shining example of how that can be done.
Laura L. Finley, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Barry University. She is the author or co-author of eight books, with two to be published in fall 2011, and her work has also been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals. She currently serves as co-chair of the South Florida Diversity Alliance and on the boards of No More Tears, Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and UN Women East Florida Chapter. Dr. Finley also serves on the board of Amnesty International USA and is K-12 Educational Liaison for the Peace and Justice Studies Association.