Publicizing Good Works

November 11, 2007 | 32 comments
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Go read this. Then return and report.

My thoughts:

(1) Remember when the newsroom smacked me down for suggesting that the Church was entering a new era of openness? I still think I was right; can you imagine a sentence beginning with “The Church often wrestles over the issue . . .” or “Two New Testament scriptures seem to be somewhat in conflict” coming from an official source ten years ago? Neither can I.

(2) The article is an excellent exploration of the issues surrounding publicizing humanitarian efforts. Discuss.

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32 Responses to Publicizing Good Works

  1. MLU on November 11, 2007 at 11:54 am

    A poster on a general news site recently mentioned how the church was assisting in the California wildfires. This led to a torrent of invective against the church by posters who said their own denominations were also assisting but weren’t using their charity as a promotional tool, as Mormons routinely did.

    While you can’t worry too much about trying to please people who are determined to be nasty, you also have to be aware of them and be careful that their nastiness doesn’t resonate with much truth.

    (That wasn’t much of a smack down, since it didn’t deny or disagree with your point so much as add context, by way of de-emphasizing personalities and focusing on the gradual Spreading of the Light. . .)

  2. Dr. B. on November 11, 2007 at 11:59 am

    I review the article as you suggested. There wasn’t anything inconsistent with the past practices of the church in covering their humanitarian efforts. The church news is replete with stories of aid. The church uses other media judiciously. When non-LDS sources feel inclined they have written extensively about our efforts. The statement about secretly and let your light is the only thing that is discussable. I know that our non-Mormon P.R. team has been encouraging us to take a more public stand so that we appear more mainstream. Maybe that is the intent of this press statement.

  3. Jonathan Green on November 11, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    This week, our ward donated 1000 Euro and a bunch of labor to help with the renovation of the local Ronald McDonald house. It made it into the paper.

  4. Marc on November 11, 2007 at 3:20 pm

    I’ve long felt there was a tension here. Members like to hear about what their tithing and humanitarian donations are going to support… but it’s a fine line to avoid tooting one’s own horn. Maybe noting that journalists from countries like Haiti are actually requesting that the Church increase its publicity of its humanitarian efforts will make it seem less like horn tooting.

  5. Velikye Kniaz on November 11, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    I believe that the Church is better served to downplay and continue to be circumspect in our cumulative humanitarian efforts. In the cited California example, other denominations felt slighted because their efforts weren’t given equal time but that was likely because their efforts though equally sincere and compassionate were simply not of the same magnitude. Due to our Church organization we have long been able do respond to disasters with far greater resources that the less centralized denominations. Should we attempt to publicize our efforts as the Madison Ave PR boys insist we do, the Baptists and evangelicals will jump on this as yet another proof that Mormons are securing their salvation through “works”, an old canard which continues to live on since my mission to the deep South some 30+ years ago. That said, I do believe that the Church should keep the Saints informed on these efforts perhaps on a stake or area level, so thay they know their offerings are being constructively used to alleviate the sufferings of their fellow men. Lastly, IMHO, the Church has allowed the Baptists and evangelicals to have far too much influence on what we say and do. We ARE the Restored Church of Jesus Christ and we certainly have the keys to all the inspiration and revelation needed to govern and guide us to the Millenium when He whose Right it is to Reign will take His Place in the flesh to guide the Church through its Millenial work.

  6. CAW on November 11, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    It seems to me that the journalists are the ones who need to take the initiative to publicize the efforts of the church and other charitable agencies in responding to the great need in the country. Why ask the Church to self-promote when journalists are recognizing the value of promoting organizations who are making a difference? Maybe they have a problem with praising the work of a religious organization? I don’t know. But I understand the fine line the church Public Affairs people have to walk, and this was an interesting article about it. But, publicized or not, I am very proud (uh, I mean, well pleased) with the church’s efforts to go beyond taking care of our own and reach out to meet needs in the world. I feel very comfortable giving my charitable donation money to the Humanitarian Fund and I’m confident it will be well spent there.

  7. deb on November 11, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    I have always felt that the Church could do better with publicity. Our area (Northwest US) simply never puts anything out publickly.

    Our paper prints many articles on the good the Scouts are doing, scholarships earned, military ranks, etc. When my first son earned his Eagle, I contacted the local wimpy “news”paper and submitted a 2 paragraph notice about my son. Very factual, no mention of the Church; I did mention his troop/crew number. It was printed. The very next day I received a heated phone scolding from a regional Church publicity person, enraged that I would dare to “drag the Church through the mud like that.” I was baffled… I had not mentioned the Church at all, just that this young man had earned Eaglel, he was a student here, and had done this for a project, not much more. She shouted that by putting the troop number “Every single person who reads it knows he is LDS.” My still-confused response was “So? It says he did something positive!” She made it very clear that “regular members” are never authorized to put anything in a public newspaper. I did not know that. I calmly mentioned that son #2 was on the verge of Eagle, too, so who should I contact for him? She nearly yelled “You Just Don’t Get It! We NEVER print anything!” Why, then, do we *have* a PR calling?

    Since then, I have watched, and sure enough, of all the good things mentioned in the “news”paper, all the scouting, all the various awards earned by youth, service projects, none are ever LDS. “Let your light so shine” seems to be not very public.

    I’d like to see more mention of good deeds done, humanitarian projects, etc. As far as the criticism…it’s inevitable. I remember begging my dad to let me get a poorly constructed nose fixed. He said “if people can’t tease you about your nose, they will find something else to tease about. Bumbling humans are everywhere.” My vote: do what is right, bring it up without bragging, and ignore the naysayers.

  8. Kevin Barney on November 11, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    The article is an excellent, judicious discussion of the issues.

    You were right the first time, Julie. The Powers That Be may not want to acknowledge it, but you were right the first time.

    deb, I’m on my stake’s public affairs council. I’m the community relations guy, not the media person, but I can assure you that in most stakes the media person tries very hard to get positive pieces on the local church–including scouting advancements–placed in the local papers. I have no idea what planet your stake PR people are on.

  9. makakona on November 11, 2007 at 5:37 pm

    our area has an amazing public presence. last friday, our ward and another hosted a veteran’s day tribute at our building. it was well-attended by the community, including two local mayors, an assemblywoman, and a congresswoman. instead of a christmas dinner, our ward is doing a live nativity with a brief social, all to be advertised beforehand in the local paper. our ward also invites the leader of a local church to come speak to us once a month. a day or two later, we then go tour their facilities as appropriate and have a lunch afterward. some of the most interesting faiths covered were muslim, greek orthodox, and judaism. it’s really helped to foster a great relationship with our community. oh! our ward’s literacy program is also really outstanding with a monthly class open to the public.

  10. Naismith on November 11, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    Julie, thanks so much for the timely piece. For Thanksgiving, much of our ward leaves, so we are doing a special Sunday School lesson rather than plowing ahead in Gospel Doctrine (we are well on track to finish on time, thanks to no hurricanes or floods this year).

    I thought of doing a lesson on church humanitarian services, and how it ties in with the New Testament miracles performed by Christ and the apostles. Christ made the lame walk, we provide wheelchairs; Christ told the apostles where to find fish, we helped build fishing boats after the Indonesian tsunami; Christ made the blind see, we provide eyeglasses; Christ fed the hungry, we provide Atmit to starving Africans. Basically just read the scriptures, then talk about/show video of the church efforts.

    But this is an intersting point to add to the discussion.

  11. JimD on November 11, 2007 at 7:22 pm

    Generally agree with the Church’s statement, and also agree that the Church News should be covering this kind of stuff. But, for example, with the SoCal fires a lot of the Church’s relief efforts wound up as front-page news on the Deseret News’ website. That probably wasn’t proper.

    Deb, you seem to have a peculiar ward. When I got my Eagle, a minor spat broke out between the stake PR person and the ward PR person over who was the “proper” person to submit the story to the local paper.

  12. horebite on November 11, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    What I found most interesting was the perspective of the Haitians journalists. Could we actually inspire more people to help if we publicized what we are doing there? Perhaps we could publicize it in a way that would not sound like bragging. I can envision an advertising campaign centered around the needy around the world and ways that normal folks can help them. What the church is doing would give the campaign some validity, but it wouldn’t have to be the focus of the message.

    That’s just a thought. In general I think the church’s approach of accepting public attention but not seeking it is appropriate.

  13. Y Stephenson on November 11, 2007 at 10:23 pm

    The article was enlightening. I don’t see any particular conflict between doing alms in secret and letting your light shine. The good the church does as a whole in times of disaster is not private acts of kindness or service. As I recall the area of the fire is a place where there is a relatively large population of Latter-day Saints. It would be natural that the Church would be seen helping both on a local basis and a broader one.

    One story that reached all the way out here (on CNN I understand) was an interview with a man who lost his house but his garage was left standing. In the interview he indicated that he was glad he had his garage because it had one years supply of food in it. Now no one mentioned he was LDS, but everyone assumed that he was. The person who recounted this story said he had not seen the interview but his non Mormon co workers had and they all pointed it out to him. So it seems there really isn’t any way to avoid publicity.

    On the other hand it is very difficult to get positive publicity in this area unless we put it out there ourselves. Even then it often will not be accepted by some outlets. I remember a special Easter presentation a few years ago. One of the local papers sent a reporter and a photographer. The coverage was a disappointment. It didn’t talk about any of the things one would have expected such a piece on any of the other local churches would contain. It is my belief that the Church is not nearly as aggressive in promoting itself than most other Christian churches in our area. Those who hate us or are afraid of us will find something to criticize no matter what we do.

  14. Bookslinger on November 12, 2007 at 12:23 am

    My stake’s PR people (at least in the past) have been like the one described by Deb in #7. I couldn’t can’t get them to do a darn thing, not even to email me or phone call.

    In 2004 I had a very successful day giving out copies of various African translations of the Book of Mormon at an African festival. It was just a “Book of Mormon Booth”. I wanted to share and replicate the success and get others in on the act. Nada. Not interested.

    So far, I’ve done two African festivals, two Filipino festivals, and a Multi-Cultural festival sponsored by the local public school system. I don’t submit anything to the newspaper, but I’ve gone ahead and rented booth space on my own, and paid for it myself, bought dozens of copies of the Book of Mormon in various languages, and just “did it.”

    Trying to work through official channels was slow and frustrating. The people on the committee were too bureacratic, and like Deb implied, just too afraid to do anything publicly that might attract attention.

  15. mmiles on November 12, 2007 at 12:40 am

    Bookslinger–
    There is a huge difference between publicity for service and humanitarian aid and even boy scout recognition and publicity for proselytizing.

  16. Bookslinger on November 12, 2007 at 1:39 am

    mmiles, What are you talking about? I don’t proselyte. I just give out free books in other people’s languages coupled with English. It’s free bilingual ESL material. It’s a humanitarian service. :-)

  17. Bookslinger on November 12, 2007 at 1:47 am

    Well, okay, I put contact information in the books if people want to learn more.

    Do people think that our humanitarian aid volunteers are going to say “sorry, can’t talk about church/religion” if a recipient of that aid or an observer asks questions about the church or our beliefs? Of course, the church’s aid comes with no strings attached. And I also offer material with no strings attached. Yet in _both_ settings we all realize the possibility of future gospel opportunities.

    Did Ammon offer King Lamoni to be one of his shepherds with a gospel string attached? No. But he was sure hoping it would lead to a gospel opportunity.

    And yes, I did take full-time missionaries with me to the two African festivals, but I tried to be like Ammon, and I didn’t let them actively proselyte. I let them answer questions if they were asked, and take contact information if people wanted to know more. People came to us. People initiated questions. People asked to know more. All we had to do was sit there next to the “Free Books” signs that listed the languages.

    So it really is closer to humanitarian or public service than proselyting. I’m providing a service (free bilingual ESL material, free reading material in various languages, free Bibles in various languages, and free videos in various languages) and allowing people the opportunity to initiate questions or ask for more information.

    So I think it is congruent with the humanitarian/welfare services operations. If the recipients of the aid, or those observing the church’s efforts ask questions, the workers will gladly try to answer any questions asked. And if the recipients or observers want to know more, they can be put into contact with “church representatives.”

    You illustrate part of the problem I’m having at communicating this concept to others in the church. I can’t seem to get others in the church to think outside the box in regards to the Book of Mormon and the many multi-language materials the church has.

    Even the Multi-cultural department of the local school system “caught the vision” of what I’m trying to do and accepted my application to exhibit at their multi-cultural festival.

    How can I better communicate this idea to others in the church and get them signed on to the idea that we can provide bilingual material to many people out there who are eager for it “even though” it is religious/Christian in nature?

    There is a huge demand for it, and I’ve tapped into less than 1%.

    Providing this reading material (and videos) is indeed a service to the many millions of immigrants who can hardly get any material at all, much less bilingual material, in their native languages, such as Amharic, Arabic, Bambara, Bemba, Cambodian, Cebuano, Bengali, Fulani, Hausa, Hiligaynon, Igbo, Ilokano, Indonesian, Kannada, Kisii, Lingala, Malayalam, Mongolian, Pashto, Punjabi, Shona, Somali, Swahili, Tagalog, Tshiluba, Telugu, Twi, Urdu, Vietnamese, Wolof, Yoruba, Zulu, etc.

    Spanish isn’t a big deal, because there are already tons of Spanish media and bilingual materials available.

    And as far as “secretly hoping” the humanitarian service/aid turns into gospel opportunities, why do you think humanitarian aid/service volunteers wear those cheesy, self-promoting, almost Madison-Avenue-y “LDS Helping Hands” t-shirts? Fer cryin out loud, even I think those are a little too over-the-top.

    Deb (in #7), pointed out an example of how local PR people in the church stumble about, and don’t “catch the vision” of their calling, just as much or more so than higher level PR people in the church are hestitant and self-questioning. I’m merely echoing Deb’s observations with my own local experience.

    By the way, humanitarian aid to non-members outside of the Mormon corridor is a relatively new thing. It only started about 1985. To some of the age 30 and under nacclers, it may seem like the church was always involved as it is now. That is definitely not the case.

    My lemma is: We don’t have to be afraid of who we are, or what we have, or what we’re doing, or what we’re about.

    And by the way, we gots free books in over 160 languages. They’re Christian, but they’re free.

  18. Ardis Parshall on November 12, 2007 at 11:30 am

    By the way, humanitarian aid to non-members outside of the Mormon corridor is a relatively new thing. It only started about 1985. To some of the age 30 and under nacclers, it may seem like the church was always involved as it is now. That is definitely not the case.

    As a formally organized Humanitarian Services division, perhaps this is true — which is what you mean by “as it is now” perhaps. But don’t forget that the first outside relief to reach San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake came from the Relief Society — whole train cars filled with flour. Ditto enormous shipments of clothing for Belgian relief during World War I, and all the post-World War II food shipments to Europe (remember how we bent rules by packing cans of pork with a few beans on top and labeling them as pork-and-beans?). There are lots of examples of Relief Society shipments on a smaller scale to help victims of natural disaster outside of the Mormon Corridor before Humanitarian Services was organized.

  19. Kyle R. on November 12, 2007 at 11:49 am

    I think the Church should highlight its humanitarian work more often. The cooperation with Islamic Relief is particularly noteworthy.

    This here is the second time in as many months I’ve noticed LDS projects mentioned in an African news source.

    http://www.accra-mail.com/mailnews.asp?id=2925

    I quite like the unashamedly honest statement “that the aim and objective of the projects is to help the needy and improve communities, strengthen church members, share the gospel indirectly, build relationships with community leaders and enhance the reputation of the church.”

  20. Bookslinger on November 12, 2007 at 11:53 am

    Ardis, Also new since 1985 is the non-disaster humanitarian services to non-members. Programs like the well-drilling, immunization, wheelchairs, etc.

  21. mmiles on November 12, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    Not to mention the majority of the Red Cross during WWI was RS sisters.

  22. Ardis Parshall on November 12, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    The Relief Society certainly did participate enthusiastically in World War I-era Red Cross work, but of course outside of Utah we were a minority. Just this morning I had a great conversation with someone about the Red Cross in Price, Utah (his specialty) and in Marysvale, Utah (my specialty), and how the Red Cross provided a common ground for Mormons and others to cooperate. The Methodists took the lead in both places as far as organizing the Red Cross, with Mormons (men and women) joining in.

    In Kingston, which was almost totally LDS, the Relief Society shipped a box of home-knitted goods to the Red Cross office in Salt Lake, who wrote to Marysvale, the nearest point with a Red Cross branch, asking Marysvale to find out who had sent the things, and to get them organized as a Red Cross as soon as possible.

    One of these days I’m going to write a history of the homefront during WWI, with Marysvale as the focus. Tiny, tiny place, but everything that happened on a larger scale in the cities also happened there.

  23. Heaather on November 12, 2007 at 4:38 pm

    I think one of the reasons that we have commandments that appear to be “in conflict” with each other is to provide us with the opportunity to truly choose. If the commandment was only to “let your light shine” then everyone would know exactly what to do and the element of choice doesn’t really exist. With the commandment to do alms in secret we are now presented with two correct options and it is up to us to decide which choice is best for which situation. There are multiple right answers not only one. The Church can be correct in making humanitarian efforts more public and in not seeking attention for their good works. Personally I think it reflects better on the Church if we let impartial observers tell the world what we are doing. Like maybe the Haitian reporters after all isn’t that what reporters are supposed to do — report what’s going on to the rest of the world??

  24. mlu on November 12, 2007 at 6:31 pm

    #23 Yes. I usually think that apparent conflicts such as this are just statements that are both true but true at different levels, in that hierarchical and complex reality that Mormons inhabit.

    We should not do good works for the glory they bring us–as we might if we were thinking at, say, a “terrestrial” level.

    If we do good works for the good they do, we should let the world see, as we might on, say, a”celestial” level.

  25. Heaather on November 12, 2007 at 7:47 pm

    This is just semantics but I think it is also interesting to think of the three different levels as water, spirit, blood. My question though is this: Is there one right “celestial” way of thinking or do different situations demand different responses?

  26. Lori on November 12, 2007 at 9:49 pm

    #7 I sent this to our ward PR person, and here was her response:
    Wow–I find the comments from the PR person who called this lady on the phone to be disconcerting and the manner of handling things sounds like it left much to be desired. (Someone had a bad hair day!) My reactions are up there with the mother — and our training here in the Boston area for Public Affairs has been exactly aimed at what this mother says: Let the Church’s name be associated with good! Thus we have Public Affairs Specialist in most of the wards/branch in our stakes to look for those very opportunities to put articles in the small town papers, as well as our city editions. We are thrilled (as PAS) when our submissions get accepted. We do like to have the opportunity to review/edit things that members might prepare to submit, just to make sure it’s accurate, well written, basically ‘proofed’ as any editor does prior to print–that’s part of our calling. When submitting to larger papers we try to have one person do the submitting, so editors can know who to contact with questions, etc. and not cause confusion. Of course, this is our area’s focus and procedures and is under our regional representative and stake president’s guidance. The church does have a Public Affairs Department who trains area directors, who work with different stakes. They can certainly answer this mother’s questions!

    Topics such as Young Men or Young Women earning Eagle/YW Recognitions, missionary calls/returns, new callings (bishops, auxilary presidents, etc.), community service projects, special programs –i.e. Choir presentations, etc. are ideal for letting communities know our values. Media questions involving doctrinal issues, speaking on behalf of the church, etc. are always forwarded to the stake president and/or regional representative. Public Affairs Specialists do not make comments on behalf of the church — we report on items as listed previously. For examples of items that appear in the media –mostly newspapers, large and small, — visit http://www.lds.org and go to the Newsroom. There you can read from the archives all kinds of examples of things that ‘make press’.

  27. john f. on November 13, 2007 at 6:27 am

    Julie, I have thought about this tension before, including at ABEV. I had not really considered the point that the Haitian journalists brought up about how publicizing the assistance raises awareness of the need for the assistance and could inspire others to join in the effort. Previously, I had (perhaps uncharitably) viewed our penchant for showcasing our service and humanitarian efforts as self-congratulatory or self promotion. I think that the Haitian journalists have a far better take on it.

    But despite the view taken by the Haitian journalists, which I like, the other problem discussed at ABEV remains. That is, although publicizing humanitarian relief efforts might actually be a good idea on a grand scale in the context of relief given to regions mired in the most base suffering for the reasons suggested by the journalists, there is still an effect on the personal level when too many people associate service with advertizing. Thus, if people by and large view the performance of service as a means of advertizing, then we need to ask whether this is really a moral act or not and whether the motives sour the service rendered. In addition to that problem, there is the problem that those served will not trust the service but rather view it cynically as yet another effort to try to create and/or polish a self-image at the expense of those served.

  28. Ray on November 13, 2007 at 9:23 am

    We are taught that when someone serves for selfish reasons, particularly to obtain the praise of others, “they have their reward” upon having given the service. I used to be judgmental of those who put their family name on buildings that were built through their donations, but I finally realized that there is nothing “wrong” with that if the reward sought was mortal recognition. They gave money; they received recognition and praise; it’s a fair trade. They got what they bought.

    Having said that, I do agree completely that organized service through our local Church units should be done primarily for the good of the service itself and the impact on actual lives, with the recognition being a natural by-product. If we have to choose between something that has a greater impact on people and something that provides greater recognition, I hope we choose the greater impact each time.

  29. Matt W. on November 13, 2007 at 10:20 am

    I used this press release in my talk on sunday! Thanks for posting it!

    One thing to note is that the church website has a listing of 2049 “Humanitarian Aide” Level Projects on their website.

  30. Austin F. on November 13, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    I think we should never publicize our good works. Just do what needs to be done. If the Haitians want media coverage, then perhaps the church can finance some sort of campaign to publicize the plight of the Hatian people (on the condition of anonymity). It always bothered me when I saw articles in the Church News publicizing our service. It seemed so self-promoting. Along the same lines, it ticks me off when I see volunteers doing clean-up or recovery work (Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina) that say “MORMON VOLUNTEER.” “Letting our light shine” means letting others see what we do and allow them to draw their own conclusions. It does not mean promoting our alms…in any circumstance.

  31. David Petersen on November 13, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    We shouldn\’t hide our candle under a bushel, however I concur with Ray. We shouldn\’t do service solely to recieve the praise of others. It all depents upon the spirit in which we let others know. If it is to help build the church\’s reputation, letting people know is good. Don\’t do it to make yoruself look good.

    When we share service, it gives us an opportunity to share our message. We should not be afraid to share.

  32. Ray on November 13, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    Austin, I would agree in a vacuum, but in the case of disaster relief efforts and the “Mormon Helping Hands” shirts, a big part of the reason for the shirts is to dispel common mis-perceptions that Mormons are weird, anti-social, cliquish cultists who only associate with and help other Mormons. Given that reality and the fact that nobody would associate the volunteers with the Church in many parts of the country (and world) otherwise, I understand and have no problem with the shirts.

    Also, it’s hard to believe that very many nonmembers read the Church News, so it’s much more of an informational forum for members than advertising or publishing our activities for the praise of the world.