Violence against women: A charity case?

My entry point into the charity sector came by way of working at a shelter for assaulted women and children—Interval House, the first shelter for abused women in North America— where I spent eight years at a counsellor.

We didn’t call it charity work at the time. To tell the truth, the last thing we wanted to be considered was a charity.

(Because to me, and to us at the time, charity meant embracing the idea of giving to “those less fortunate than oneself,” a set of values that we interpreted, at its root, as a patronizing, parochial concept of noblesse oblige.  Rather, we were challenging the existence of the patriarchy and the resulting weight of its oppression —including violence, diminishment, disempowerment and humiliation—used to hold all women down. Charity? Forget about it. We were leading a revolution.)

And if you think for one moment the weight of that patriarchy has eased, you need only look at what unfolded in the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings this week where the Republican majority Judiciary Committee, all white men, recommended a credibly accused assaulter of women be put onto the Supreme Court of the United States.

Nonetheless, Interval House was organized as a charity. As such, we didn’t make a profit, offered public benefit, paid no taxes, were regulated by the Canada Revenue Agency and could issue tax credits for donations.  Given there was no regularized government funding for shelters like Interval House at that time, we had to learn how to fundraise. So, we did, and I did.

The first thing I learned about fundraising was direct mail. Since we “didn’t know any rich people,” the democratic aspect of direct mail was appealing.  Mailing thousands of letters giving voice to the situation of the women who fled to us for help resulted in us receiving hundreds and hundreds of cheques in the mail from people who supported what we were doing.

I still feel grateful to those people for the money they sent through the mail. They were trailblazers in their own way. And we sure needed it. Not simply to provide food and shelter for women and children but to do the advocacy, media relations, government relations and public awareness that would lead to greater understanding the need for the public policy changes, changes in legislation, the courts, social services, children’s services, the gamut. And it allowed Interval House to develop with an independence afforded to few community-based organizations.

The days are long gone when a women’s shelter could successfully fundraise enough money from direct mail to be independent. In my mind, the charity sector has turned from a collection of passionate community organizations able to raise money for their work into a behemoth of almost unmanageable institutions who are increasingly becoming beholden to the big money that funds hope and dreams, not of the public, but of a smaller and smaller group of ultra-wealthy people every year.

Direct marketing is so expensive now and the results so diminished that only the most established organizations can afford to implement well-established direct marketing programs. It’s a tough time to start anything new.

Donors are being approached by mail, email, phone and text so often that when Olive Cooke, a 92-year-old British woman who committed suicide in 2016, people said the 3,000 pieces of mail she received from charities that year contributed to her depression.  While her family said that wasn’t the case, the idea that people believed that approaches from charities could make you feel so depressed that you might take your life will give you an idea of where some donors are at these days.

As more and more charities turn to major gifts to raise money, we are increasingly marketing our charities to a smaller group of people. And whatever democracy direct marketing has brought us as a sector is being lost.

People working in fundraising, as far as I see and hear, are becoming more and more stressed as they try to get blood from a stone, if you’ll excuse the expression.  I spent a weekend with fundraisers at the AFP in New Orleans in April and the main topic of conversation was how the expectations of the fundraising departments were becoming out of whack. And individual fundraisers were feeling the pressure, believing that one more workshop on moves management or one new book on donor stewardship might make the difference. These people, who believed in their work, where looking for something new.

Back in the Interval House days when women came to the shelter, they blamed themselves for the violence. Pretty nearly without exception they believed they had done something wrong, were not good wives, partners or mothers, dinner had been burnt, the kids were noisy, they didn’t want sex. It was something in them that made their partners beat them. And beaten they were. With fists, with pipes, curling irons, vacuum cleaner hoses. You name it. And the women were so brave. It’s unbelievable. They gathered up their children and left their homes, not knowing what was going to happen to them next, where they were going to live and how they were going to make a living.

In our first interview with a woman, the “intake interview,” we would get necessary information and also explain to them they were not alone, that many men hit their partners, and, in fact, society was set up in such a way, in a patriarchy, that has allowed them to get away with it throughout history.  I used to find it amazing that even in a quick description of gender inequity really improved their sense of self. It was an aha moment.

I think a similar aha moment is there to be had for fundraisers who understand their stresses and their feelings up not being up to the job is very much to do with the changing dynamics in the sector and how it has become more difficult for 99% of charities as the 1% generate more wealth for themselves.  A good analysis is good for your self-esteem, we said back those days. And I believe it now.

Sometimes when I feel the pressures of the world closing in, and given what we’ve had to witness in the U.S. in their Supreme Court process in the last few weeks, I think about the late night conversations I had with women in the Interval House days—Luisa, Paula, Lucie, Emsi, Micki, Maria, Sonya, Anne, Theresa all of them—who had the strength to walk into the unknown with their children and a few belongings in garbage bags.

They were heroines in their time—and ours. Yet despite being able to stay in a safe space, receive the help they needed to get their legal, financial and housing matters sorted, there was no happy, tidy ending.  Because when they left Interval House, they didn’t walk into a white house with a picket fence. They and their children walked into a life of poverty. Poverty was the price of safety. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, violence in the is a huge part of why single moms live in poverty.

Those women, the strongest women I’ve ever met didn’t—and don’t—need charity. They—and we—need a revolution.


Sandy Tam Photography-Gail01Gail Picco is an award-winning charity strategist widely recognized as one of Canada’s foremost experts on how to carve a path through the increasingly complex dynamics of the charitable sector. Civil Sector Press published her latest book, Cap in Hand: How Charities are Failing the People of Canada and the World, in 2017.

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