We noticed that people – including ourselves – talk about “worthy” causes. In many ways the phrase is a “seal of approval.” Yet what’s “worthy” to one person or group, isn’t necessarily “worthy” to another. The phrase assumes shared values, but doesn’t always make clear what those values are, or why the cause is worthy.
Does helping one person make a cause a worthy? We’ve heard people say, “if we help just one person, it’s worth it.” We tend to question that logic: is it really “worth it” – for example – to have an organization with a $300,000 annual operating budget that “helps just one person?” We know that’s an exaggeration, but on a feeling level, many people feel that way about organizations they are passionate about. They are saying “our work is priceless.” That may be true, and there is a price attached to the work of nonprofits. In most communities – and in most households – there are limited funds and resources to be allocated. The issue of worthiness arises in the creation of criteria by which we make decisions. Some of these are spoken, and some of these are unspoken and often unconscious.
Other people believe an organization is worthy if it reaches a large number of people, has economies of scale, talented leadership, effective programs, consistent evaluation, and highly qualified staff. They can “make a dollar go far” – and that is the source of their “worthiness.”
Some organizations serve people and families that other nonprofits cannot reach. Some offer specialized services to hard-to-serve populations, or to communities where “tried and true” solutions just don’t work. The cost to serve one individual or family may be higher for these organizations, than others. Does that make them less worthy or more worthy? Who decides?
Related to this, which is more important: direct services that impact the lives of individual families and help them meet their immediate needs, or investments in public policy that change conditions for large numbers of people? Who decides which is more “worthy?”
“Worthiness” is a designation bestowed for different reasons. Sometimes an organization’s mission is deemed worthy and that overrides the question of whether or not their impact or outcome is worthy. Worthiness can be bestowed when a donor makes a gift. It is also a designation bestowed by the people served or advocated for.
The dictionary defines worthy as “good and deserving respect, praise, or attention; having enough good qualities to be considered important, useful, etc. Having worth or value: estimable. Or, having sufficient worth or importance.
Our question to you: how do you define “worthy?” Can you communicate the value of your organization without using the word “worthy” or implying that others are somehow less worthy? What exactly makes your organization worthy?