How Charities, for the Best of Motives, Add to the Stigma That Burdens Their Clients

23/12/2013 10:31 GMT | Updated 19/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Christmas is a time that many charities make appeals for donations from their supporters. It is a lucrative time to do so, and provides much needed income that is spent throughout the year, not just at Christmas.

Over the last few weeks you will have received direct mailings, increasingly electronic, with emotive accounts of hardship and unhappiness, yet hope for the future. We tend to pile it on, and we usually don't overstate the situation. The lives of many of our beneficiaries can be heart-breaking, living on the margins of society, not far removed from the ultimate client outcome, death.

We tell their stories, with candid honesty. In return we receive generous support from those who wish to help us in what we do. Their generosity is what stands between some services continuing and closing. Because of their (your?) generosity, our clients continue to receive certain services.

So all is well. Or is it?

A couple of years ago, at a residents meeting in Saltdean, one resident, who was objecting to a Brighton Housing Trust service being located in their community, said to me: "I know all about your organisation. You only work with homeless drug addicts, alcoholics, and people who are mad. Now you want to house them here". I responded by saying that was a gross generalisation, that we house people who are in housing need, and most of our clients could not be described in the way she had. She responded by saying she had looked on our website and my blog which said something quite different.

While I hope that at BHT we take a more positive, balanced view, on one level she was quite right. The consequence for our clients is that we add to the stigma that might already be holding them back. Private landlords have been known to turn down potential tenants because of their association with BHT, believing that BHT only works with "homeless drug addicts, alcoholics, and people who are mad."

When I meet someone for the first time, after basic introductions, we often ask what the other does for a living. While most of us are happy to be identified by our employment status ("I'm Andy, I work for Brighton Housing Trust"), many charities identify their clients by their problems: "this is Mike, he has a mental health problem"; "this is Sarah, she has a drug problem".

While perhaps I am making a gross generalisation, it isn't a bad thing to re-examine our attitudes and how we communicate. In the new year charities should learn new ways by ensuring that we do everything to identify the potential and achievements of our clients.

Meanwhile, may I wish you a very happy Christmas and New Year, and if you wish to support the work of a great charity, could I suggest .....