Humor is one of the fastest ways to connect with people on a human, emotional level, but so many nonprofits are afraid to even give it a try. “The work we do is no laughing matter,” they say. “What we do is very serious. We can’t possibly make light of our work.” So earnest. So sincere. So boring. And therefore so underfunded.
When I am waiting for a webinar to start, I’ll often click over to the websites of the people who’ve connected early to get a better idea for who’s on the line that day. That’s how I ended up on the website of the Crisis Center, in Johnson County, Iowa. Beth Ritter Ruback, the Communication & Development Director, is one of our All-Access Pass holders.
The Crisis Center helps people who are struggling with a range of desperate situations from hunger and suicide to abuse and disasters. Not funny. At all.
Yet the first thing I saw on their website was a slider ad asking people to “TP the Crisis Center for Halloween.”
I can say with confidence that this is the only time I have laughed out loud looking at a crisis center home page.
So I asked Beth to share the back story with me.
One of the Crisis Center’s programs is a food bank that serves over 4,000 people each month. Three-quarters of what the program distributes are grocery donations by Johnson County residents via food drives, individual donations, overstock from grocers, etc. The Crisis Center uses cash donations to fill in nutritionally valuable and diverse food for their clients. But that means that other sought-after items, like toilet paper, are only available if someone happens to donate them.
In 2010, a woman came into the Crisis Center and asked to speak to Executive Director Becci Reedus about a donation. She was a former client who had visited the Food Bank during a particularly difficult period in her life. She praised the staff and volunteers who assisted her for their care and the dignity they afforded to her when life was so hard. Fast forward, and this woman was back on her feet. She wanted to donate $1,000 to the Food Bank to help others — and she asked that the money be used in part to buy toilet paper. The availability of that one seemingly inconsequential item had made a huge difference to her when she needed help.
This story touched Becci deeply, so she suggested that they start an annual toilet paper drive, to call special attention to how important this item is to people’s dignity and yet how they didn’t want to spend the food budget on it. Becci thought it made perfect sense to do it during the fall and to tie it into the classic Halloween prank as a way to draw attention to the campaign. “TP the Crisis Center” was born.
Beth says the first drive in October 2010 exceeded their wildest expectations. “The response was incredible and last year, in our second year, we had toilet paper stacked nearly to the ceiling of our storage area by the end of the month,” says Beth. “Simply bringing to the public’s attention the need for toilet paper has meant that for the past two years, we’ve always had it available when a client requests it.”
Can’t you just hear the zero-fun worrywarts out there: “But what if someone actually TP’d the building? Then what? How awful would that be! We would never risk something like that!”
So I asked Beth, has anyone actually TP’d the place?
She replied, “To be honest, we have never worried about someone actually TPing the building! The community is such a huge part of our efforts and knows how hard we work to meet need, so we haven’t considered that someone would waste the toilet paper. I really can’t imagine it happening but if it did, I’m sure we would clean it up as quickly as possible and move on with our messaging that a simple roll of toilet paper can provide dignity for a family in need.”
Sounds like a good crisis plan to me!
“TP the Crisis Center” has opened the door to other product-focused drives, says Beth, because the community responded to the fun messaging, as opposed to “the sky is falling and it’s your moral imperative to help.” They also do “Spread the Love” which is a peanut butter and jelly drive in February, and April is “Shower the Crisis Center” month for baby products. Beth says they are adding just one a year to make sure they can manage the additional promotions required, but she can envision a full 12 months of themed drives.
Beth says, “Given that our agency has specialized in suicide prevention and intervention since its inception, we are well aware of the need for humor. Tongue in cheek has worked for us, but I think that’s because we always stay within our mission and values.”
Are you using humor at an organization with a serious mission statement? Share your story in the comments!