Aug. 30, 2018 10:06 am

The saga of Johnny Bobbitt holds a lesson for nonprofit fundraisers: Tell better stories

Development pros must channel the same inspiration that prompted 14,000 people to donate a collective $400,000 to one man experiencing homelessness when sharing their organizations' missions, writes columnist Valerie Johnson.

Homelessness in Philadelphia.

(Photo by Flickr user Sharada Prasad CS, used via a Creative Commons license)

I’ve been following the story of Johnny Bobbitt since it first made news late last year. And I have a lot of thoughts.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here’s a quick recap: A veteran experiencing homelessness was panhandling near I-95 one evening last fall and noticed a woman pulled to the side of the road who had run out of gas. He told her to get back in the car and lock the doors, and returned with a can of gas he had purchased with his last $20.

The woman he helped, Kate McClure, started a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for Johnny. The campaign was initially to provide first and last month’s rent on an apartment, six month’s worth of expenses and a reliable vehicle.

The story went viral. Johnny, Kate and her boyfriend, Mark D’Amico, were interviewed for national and international outlets and thanks to the exposure the GoFundMe campaign ultimately raised $402,706 from 14,347 people.

In April of this year reported that Johnny was struggling with addiction but had been sober for three weeks following a stint in rehab. Kate and Mark were giving Johnny an allowance, and both his truck and camper were registered in Kate’s name and housed on her and Mark’s property. Kate and Mark declined to give additional details due to an exclusivity agreement from a recent book deal.

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Homelessness doesn’t go away because you gift someone a large sum of money.

This month, news broke that Johnny is homeless once again. His camper and truck have been sold, he’s sleeping beneath the bridge at 2nd and Callowhill, and he is no longer sober. About $200,000 remains of the money donated to him, but the funds are still held by Kate and Mark.

There’s a lot to unpack here.

To start, homelessness doesn’t go away because you gift someone a large sum of money. There are so many causes and so many interrelated issues (addiction, foster care, intergenerational poverty, mental health, unemployment, etc.) — there’s no easy, cookie-cutter answer to homelessness. Every person is different and experiences homelessness for different reasons. It’s easy for people who aren’t well-versed in homelessness to miss the nuance here.

Housing First is a homeless assistance method that follows Maslow’s hierarchy: It addresses basic needs like food and shelter before addressing other issues. There are several models that have had high success rates in helping folks experiencing homelessness find stability that use the Housing First approach, but the models differ depending on the individual’s experience: length of homelessness, root cause(s) of homelessness, mental health or addiction issues, and more.

There are experts and leading providers, many right here in Philadelphia, who have invested time and energy in determining what works and how to provide support in the most effective way. When someone like Johnny reaches out for help, they are put into the program that has been most successful for their specific situation — for Johnny, that’s veterans who suffer from an addiction.

No matter how much Kate and Mark wanted to help Johnny, they weren’t qualified to take on such a big project.

While this system isn’t perfect and there are organizations out there that aren’t using best practices, there are plenty of nonprofits that are getting positive results. There are supports in place for folks in those programs that ensure that, once the individual has been stably housed, other issues are addressed, needs are met, and that person remains independent. If there are setbacks, there’s already a system in place for addressing problems that is based on prior experience.

Which brings me back to Johnny: No matter how much Kate and Mark wanted to help him, they weren’t qualified to take on such a big project; they don’t have expertise on homelessness or knowledge of the system.

Raising money seems like a really great idea to someone without experience with homelessness, but there are so many things that you don’t know you don’t until it is too late. How will you transfer the funds to someone who doesn’t have a bank account? How will you open a bank account for them if they don’t have their birth certificate or social security card? How will you buy him the truck of his dreams if he doesn’t have a driver’s license? Without documentation, he can’t open his own car insurance policy — are you comfortable adding him to your own?

Aside from the logistics, there’s the issue of authority. The funds were raised for Johnny by Kate and Mark. Who determines how the money is spent? Is it OK for Kate and Mark to withhold the funds if they don’t agree with Johnny’s spending? More to the point, is it OK for Mark to borrow funds without asking to gamble with and THEN tell Johnny he can’t access his own money?

Now, slipping on my fundraising hat, I can’t stop thinking about what that $400,000 could have done had it been donated to a local nonprofit addressing homelessness, rather than one person. According to Rebecca Little, director of development and marketing at Back on My Feet, the cost for one member to go through the entire program is just under $2,000; $400,000 would cover program expenses for almost an entire year for the Philadelphia office.

Fundraisers need to do better at sharing our mission in a way that the general public can understand.

So we’ve got folks who are interested and want to help who are donating enough funding to help 200 people exit homelessness to one individual. What are we, as fundraisers, doing wrong here?!

From my perspective, the lesson is that we need to do better at sharing our mission in a way that the general public can understand.

What Kate did, that we struggle to do as fundraisers, was introduce you to a human being who needs help. When she told the story of Johnny giving his last $20 to make sure a stranger got home safely, he became a guy who’s just doing his best like the rest of us.

And isn’t that what all of our clients are doing, no matter what our nonprofit’s mission? Many are in bad situations or struggling in some way, but they’re all human beings who are doing their best.

So let’s take this to heart, fellow fundraisers. Don’t just share the impact of your organization — it’s great that you serve 30,00 meals per year, but who are you serving the meals to? Introduce your supporters to the people you serve. Don’t spin a sad tale of heartache that led them to needing your help in the first place. Tell a story about the resilience that has allowed this person to succeed despite the challenges they’ve faced.

On my way to work one day this week, I ran into Pete, a alum of Back on My Feet. He was on his way to work and talked my ear off about a John Grisham novel he just started reading — he is excited about the legal terms he’s learning about as he reads. He also loves boxing and watching M. Night Shyamalan films and recently committed to training for the Philadelphia Marathon this November.

Let’s share more stories like Pete’s in hopes that we’ll inspire thousands of donors to support missions and programs that are proven to work.


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