When Missions Goes Hollywood

by Laura on September 12, 2011

 Anybody can have a good website.

Anybody.

And that includes missionaries and ministries and humanitarian efforts that want and need your money.

And oftentimes, what you see IS what you get— honest efforts at helping others, effective means of sharing God’s love with a community whether it be in education or poverty reduction or leadership training or whathaveyou. 

But, I’m on the ground here in Chiang Mai, SE Asia, which happens to be somewhat of a Christian mecca for missions organizations in all of Asia, and a story I’ve seen repeated more than once from or by the missionaries here is one of

false advertising.

Because anybody can have a good website.

And, let’s be honest, a good website with moving pictures of the impoverished or the primitive, sells.  Or fundraises, to be more specific.  And since so much of the work here is support-based, it’s a bit of a game that missionaries and organizations have to play.  We live in a virtual age, after all, when the validity of a company is based in large part by the flashiness of its website, and nonprofits are having to compete, naturally, if they want to survive and raise the necessary funds to further their visions.

And I get it.  I understand the language of SEO tags and google analytics, but my greatest struggle is when ministries paint a picture for their online viewer that isn’t actual reality or when they use content that actually exploits the people they are supposed to be helping.

untouched

touched and cropped

The hard reality is that Hollywood sells.  The dramatic, the photoshopped, the extreme, the well-crafted word, the grungy graphics, the SEO-optimized– this is the stuff that raises funds, faster.  And funds are what the missionary or relief organization needs to stay operational, to stay on the field, to continue the work.

and touched and cropped some more

And I’m not pointing fingers, because I look back at my own communication of our past 18 months, and I’m left nervous that I myself have painted too grand a picture of the work here, have cropped reality too often, or have used brush strokes that have highlighted self far too frequently.

But, really, what’s a missionary to do?  Give the ‘audience’ what they want–  inspiration that will translate into the writing of checks, and thus, the ability to do more ministry?

Or deliver the brutal truth of failed efforts and the boring everyday and, more than likely, watch their financial support go the way of their old-school website stats?

I mean, really, {and I’m sincerely asking} where’s the line between honestly recording the good cause and softly manipulating to further it?

*****************

Thoughts?  What do you think of the connection between fundraising and Hollywood?  How can you know that what you are giving your money towards is really a valid project?  Stories, rants, opinions?

And, while we’re at it– If you are someone who gives, what do you want in communication {blogs, newsletters, websites, emails updates, etc.} from the person/project you are giving towards?

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  • http://www.lifeisabowlofwedgies.blogspot.com/ Melody

    love how you talk about the hard things and just call it like it is. not sure what to think about it all….we tend to sensationalize reality and sometimes it’s for good reasons and other times it’s to build ourselves up. I think the motivation behind it all has everything to do with it. I’m talking about emphasizing or shedding light on what is already there vs creating something that’s not real. not sure that makes sense. I don’t think you are guilty of Hollywood style even if you do crop and change for the purpose of communication. I think you are incredibly strategic and resourceful. You are gifted in helping a reader who lives across the world be able to taste and see, as best as possible, your reality. And it’s for His Glory and that makes all the difference. Keep cropping and letting us see up close what God is doing in Thailand.

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

      Melody,
      Thanks so much for your kind words . . . I really appreciate it. I totally agree with you when you said that an important difference is:

      “I’m talking about emphasizing or shedding light on what is already there vs creating something that’s not real. ”

      True in that there IS a difference in shedding light and making up completely.

      And, I loved your comment about MOTIVE being a crucial factor, too. Always, always, always.

  • http://www.lifefordessert.com/ Logan@LifeforDessert

    I want it just like you give it…straight up, truthful, honest. I don’t want to support that which is unrelatable…even if it does seem like a “good cause.”
    Love you friend. Screw the stats on earth….your ones in heaven are freaking soaring.

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

      Logan,

      Honestly, and really-truly, one of the best things you’ve ever said to me in my, what 27 years of knowing you . . . .

      “SCREW THE STATS ON EARTH.”

      That is freakin-awesome.

      I love you so much,
      L

  • http://thecanvasstory.com heather

    This is the very reason I am coming in person. Found so many great websites and non-profits to partner with online, but when you are entrusting other people’s money to a mission it is vital that you know what team you are on. Yesterday Matthew Barnett tweeted, ?”Never let your desire for success get in the way of doing something truly significant.” One organized website I researched talks extensively about a rescue mission, but in the end, none of the girls in their mission are coming from the types of rescue situations they built their website around. Their desire to be a part of a particularly popular cause diminished the true value in what they were doing…taking care of the poor and needy.

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

      Heather, totally right – on. I love how you are COMING here to Thailand to see and taste and research before jumping in to ministry partnerships. That is a very wise thing, I think. And I can’t wait to meet you in person!

  • http://billhutchison.org Bill Hutchison

    It is always such a challenge to find the balance as we communicate about the ministry that God has us involved in. We have personally experienced people stop supporting us as we have communicated some of the struggles and failures that we’ve gone through, and it makes it hard to be transparent. There is always the temptation to only communicate the successful experiences.

    For me it’s not about making up stories, but it’s about focusing on what people will want to partner with us for. In my own communications we usually try to communicate the struggles, but they are usually down played and the successes amplified. Our communication is a balance that I think all of us need to find in our ministry, and we also need to also realise the different audiences we are talking to.

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

      Bill, I agree that there is always, always a BALANCE between sharing struggles and sharing the realities about what people are partnering with you to accomplish. There does have to be accountability– which is why in many ways the bigger missions organizations provide a level of that which is good {though we are more independent and not with a big organization}. The group you are sharing with, like you said, makes a big difference, too–

      The elderly woman at the Baptist church we’ve only met once might want/need a different accounting than a close friend who deeply cares about our family.

      Thanks for stopping in!

      • http://billhutchison.org Bill Hutchison

        Your article has started an interesting discussion on one of our communication groups for our organisation, https://www.facebook.com/groups/ywamcommunication/. It’s good to get us thinking, thank you.

        • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

          Thanks so much Bill for sharing it . . . .

          Take Care,
          Laura

  • http://www.wimberlys.blogspot.com cheryl @ finding the beauty

    Hmmm… another thought-provoking post. I definitely think it is a matter of the heart and I agree with what Melody said – motivation. Images speak a thousand words and if that is what moves a person to pray and/or to give, then I think it’s a good thing. God knows the motives of your heart and the motives of the heart of those exploiting and manipulating just to get a buck.
    I always enjoy your posts – thanks for keeping it real.

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

      Thanks for your kind words, Cheryl.

      And I agree– motivation is just about everything.

      • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

        Okay, I wrote that, and I DO agree about motivation being paramount, but obviously, just to clarify, actions are key, too. I can still have great motives and still be screwing things up pretty royally if I’m not careful.

        Just sayin.

        • http://www.wimberlys.blogspot.com cheryl @ finding the beauty

          Yes, that is why the book of James is so crucial to our faith, no? Works and faith go hand in hand. :)

          • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

            Cheryl . . . good reminder. “Faith without works– even the menial ones– is dead.”

  • Elizabeth Stutzman

    As a fellow comrade here in Chiang Mai, I have also felt the same struggles that you mention. As you stated similarly, there are workers (and organizations) here doing awesome things for God and others who just seem to be enjoying the free money that supports them to live better than they could support themselves back in their home country. It’s true that media allows us to put whatever image we want to make of ourselves/our ministry. It’s sad that people sending over money in trust that it will be used well doesn’t convict more Christians here to do the work they say they are doing.

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

      Thanks, Elizabeth for your thoughts . . . it’s hard not to become cynical, I think. I think especially when you have “independents”– like you guys and us, who are maybe not with a bigger organization, like the IMB or a similar group– the ability for people to take advantage of the system is pretty high, really. Because you are so right– media allows us to “make ourselves” whatever we want.

      Thanks for not being like that– I love watching what you and Ryan are doing, sacrificially and honestly– especially with the kids and women in Chiang Mai. :) Have a great week.

  • Janie

    Laura,
    I can’t add much to what’s already been said: (1) Your heart is in the right place; and (2) you don’t get so absorbed in the presentation of what you do that you forget to DO it.
    I mostly only give to causes that are well-known and transparent enough to be able to research their track record online through third-party observers. So a public online presence that engenders trust is important. But I also have been giving a monthly donation to a small virtually unknown project in Tanzania that utilizes African giant pouched rats (HeroRATs) to detect land mines for removal (APOPO.org). I learned of them through idle browsing one day at CafePress.com — they had some of HeroRATs’ hooded sweatshirts on sale, and the picture on the sweatshirt plus the name piqued my curiosity so I googled them and was hooked.
    So small organizations and individuals can find ways to attract public attention by being themselves with the right marketing tools. Is there anything wrong with marketing the work that you do? Removing land mines from areas where children lose limbs and lives every day is a cause which deserves to be recognized and supported. Saving children from the human/sex trade industry is equally worthy of public support. Most people WANT to help. Finding ways to inform them of your need for support can be difficult but I can’t imagine it being unethical or displeasing to God.

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

      Great thoughts, Janie. Thank you so much for taking the time to add them! I love what you brought up about being able to check organizations via a third-party. Isn’t there a website that will do that for you? I think it’s like an online forum to actually rate charities. . . .I’ll have to look that up. But, I love, too, your point about the smaller organizations need some love, too!

      I think my biggest takeaway from what your wrote was:

      ” you don’t get so absorbed in the presentation of what you do that you forget to DO it.”

      A good reminder!

  • http://theletterdrawer.wordpress.com Caroline

    Here’s the thing. If you ask most of the actors in Hollywood they probably wouldn’t think of themselves as “superstars” and icons (I said most…) they would say they think of themselves as artists. Art is meant to evoke an emotional response or touch a hidden (or overly exposed) place in us or alert us to something that is wrong, etc… But what makes something art and what makes it media. I think it’s the intentions of the artist (if you will). So, once again it comes down to the heart. What is your intention as you edit images and compose posts for the world to see?… And once again, it’s only something that God can judge (what the hell do the rest of us know anyway?!) b/c you can tell us whatever you want and we’re gonna believe it. I have a tendency to believe that the very fact that you ask the question means you are not in the Media camp but the Art camp. Media and advertising is what begs our money and attention for sensational stories and images. Artists merely want to express something to the world that evokes a response (whatever that response may be).
    My humble thoughts.

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

      Caroline,

      This was a perfect, and actually really helpful, insight to me. I do think that, personally, a lot of what I do is my “art”– painting a picture to evoke a response, to create for my own heart. And you are right, that is much different, and looks different maybe, from the “monthly newsletters” that I or other supported-folks send their people. Girl, thanks for this . . .

      Really encouraging to me, personally.

      • http://theletterdrawer.wordpress.com Caroline

        Oh, good! I didn’t know you were an artist as well (just started reading) though I could tell you had an artistic eye, just from your photos and blog. Very cool!

  • Katie

    I think it can be difficult to get cynical–especially when you see people that look like they’re doing more harm that good (urgh..SO frustrating). But, when I start concentrating on what other people are doing wrong, it’s easy to be distracted and loose focus on what God wants me to be doing. (Although, definitely better said than done!)

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

      Katie, YES, I struggle with the cynical thing, too, which, as you said, can be a huge distraction to doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I spend too much time looking over there that I miss what’s right here.

  • Katie

    oops. by “difficult to get cynical”, I meant “easy to become cynical” AND by loose, I meant lose. AND by “definitely better said than done” I meant “easier said than done”–wowzers, I shouldn’t try to talk on the phone and comment at the same time. So much for proof reading! :)

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

      ha ha. . . .i do that alll the time. Last week I left a comment on a big-time writing agent’s blog and totally made a huge grammatical error. Errrr. . .

      :)

  • http://www.whispersinthesilence.blogspot.com andrea

    Hi Laura-
    I’m so glad I visited today (found you through A Work in Progress).

    As someone who donates to missions and with all the stories in the news of late with donated funds not reaching the intended recipients, I try to look for organizations or people who appear to be “in the trenches” and actually administering funds/support as the donor supposed it would be. I know this still can be shaky ground as people can create believable illusions. I like a balance of statistics of people helped + reading stories which represent those statistics. One thing I don’t see as much of is the stories of how the organization/person struggles when they are trying to meet a need but aren’t living up to what they hoped to do – maybe sharing when they feel they are falling short as well as succeeding would help show this isn’t all glamor and easy and that if God is having them prepare the soil, there won’t be much or anything to harvest – He may be leaving that for someone else to do.

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

      Thanks, Andrea, for visiting today and commenting. I like your idea of matching stats with stories. That seems to be a practical way to see what an organization/group is actually DOING.

      Good thoughts.

  • http://www.stumblingaroundinthelight.com Teri @ StumblingAroundInTheLight

    Wow, you get right to the cutting-sharp-point of the matter…

    I just don’t know.
    Both, maybe? And perhaps that is the precise balance you offer in your polished-but-so-rawly-real website. Yeah, we get the cropped & perfected tear-jerker photos. But you also tell the hard truth about the reality of grit & grime & not-as-honorable-as-you’d-hoped missionary life & work.

    I think what you’re talking about is the balance we have to strike in any sort of work where we aspire to walk worthy of our calling. ‘Cause I might have lotsa wisdom about parenting…but it doesn’t mean I live it out perfectly. So I post the smiling, poignant pictures; type words of truth & conviction & inspiration. But if I’m actually gonna reach anyone – really reach them, in a way that affects change – I have to be willing to share the vulnerable, yelled-at-my-kids-today naked truth. Otherwise all that polish is just Hollywood entertainment after all…

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

      Teri, I so get you. And I think you are right in your example about blogging about parenting and the importance of being vulnerable with our lives. Absolutely. I think, too, it’s important maybe not diminish the importance of inspiration? Because when I read about some of the things/ideas you are doing with your family, I leave INSPIRED to be a better mom– and that is valuable. But obviously, pages and pages about washing the dishes doesn’t do much to inspire.

  • http://www.ladywithfaith.blogspot.com Lindsay Asbury Donaldson

    Hi! I can’t remember where I stumbled upon your site, but I added it to my reader because your pictures were so pretty 😉 Just kidding, I liked your posts, what you’re doing…I was moved.

    Anyway, I thought I would let you and readers know what I’ve been learning about lately. I just finished When Helping Hurts, a book about empowering people in poverty and effective missions. Amazing book. As a cultural anthropologist, it never sat well with me to go on short-term missions, hand out discarded clothing and essentially create an unequal, patronizing relationship between ourselves and the impoverished. Finally, someone brought to the surface the elephant in the room. Money is not the key. Jesus is enough, but long term relationships, not one-time visits, show Jesus to people. Supporters should be aware that the goal is “people and processes, not projects and products,” if that makes sense. That is, we should be ok with funding missionaries sitting with someone, everyday, getting to know them, and walking through life with them. Although it is less glamorous than pictures of building 100 homes, it is more effective. I wish more people were aware of this and you didn’t feel pressure to crop your pictures! But of course, that is the way the world works and it’s what you need to do.

    Anyway, the book gave tips on discernment when it comes to supporting missions and how to determine where to send funds. I highly recommend it. And I have a feeling that what you are doing in the field over there is wonderful. And I don’t think you should feel bad about doctoring up your pictures because your words and experiences are real! Thank you for sacrificing something so valuable – your time – for the kingdom.

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

      Lindsey, thanks for stopping by! Loved reading your thoughts on this and I totally agree. I loved When Helping Hurts and saw so much of it as a valid wake up call to the way we Westerners do missions. I love, love, love this idea . . . that missions should be about: “people and processes, not projects and products”– exactly. I think the hard reality is that the slow building of relationships is harder to “sell”– raise money for. And so even missionaries that are committed to this way of being in another culture, can struggle with what to report back home. It’s just an awkward place . . .

      So loved hearing your thoughts today! Stop by again!

      Love, L

  • Gretchen R.

    Great post. We are missionaries with an organization that does ministry among the urban poor in the U.S. only and it is hard, hard, hard to raise funds. There is often a temptation to dramatize what we do, and my husband and I struggle with that – how to paint a realistic picture but also raise funds!! It is so hard to raise funds for missionary support – much easier to raise money for a project. I am interested in the book mentioned above, but how to get that message out to the church at large?? Without the missionaries here in the neighborhoods doing the day-to-day, nitty-gritty, not pretty and definitely not glamorous work of discipleship, those projects and big fun-to-see events have very little impact.

    Oh I am so tired and rambling.

    Thanks for the honest questions.

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com Laura

      Gretchen, You raise such valid points about raising funds and the tension between honestly painting a realistic “unsexy” picture and actually raising the funds. I think it is probably harder, too, to raise money for stateside missions, at least, I would assume that’s the case. So I can only imagine the struggle you guys are in– but what a beautifully good thing you are doing– living in the urban areas and building relationships? Awesome. Thanks for serving in that way, new friend.

      And you can ramble long and tired anytime you want. :)

      • Kddenfeld

        When I was involved in urban missions the Internet was not as big as a factor, but I do remember the tension in knowing people were wondering about results that they could measure.

        How do you break long-term investments into the lives of your neighbors down to simple statistics?

        Good conversation.

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