A boarding school for Indian children has come under fire this week for misleading donors. St. Joseph’s Indian School—located in Chamberlain, South Dakota—has apparently raised millions of dollars via direct mail campaigns that utilized fake stories told from the perspective of fictitious students to generate donations during its annual fundraising drive.
A CNN report release Monday revealed that appeal letters from the school featured profiles of students who suffered abuse at the hands of troubled parents and experienced abject poverty. One such letter featured the testimony of a student named Josh Little Bear, who wrote, “My dad drinks and hits me . . . my mom chose drugs over me . . . my home on the reservation isn’t a safe place for me to be.” As the report uncovers, not only is there no Little Bear, but there is no actual student for which the name serves as a protective pseudonym.
The scope of the school’s mail fundraising is tremendous. Annually, the private institution sends out approximately 30 million direct mail pieces asking its largely Catholic donor base for money. Last year alone, the campaign generated $51 million dollars.
These actions create a host of questions about what constitutes acceptable fundraising practices. How much creative license does one have in crafting his/her institution’s identity? What are the ethical limits behind a non-profit’s messaging strategy? Can a certain element in an organization’s identity or messaging offend and alienate a group of people?
The fallout from these revelations is manifold. Native American leaders have already responded to the falsified stories. The president of the First Nations Development Institute accused the school of using “poverty porn” to solicit sympathy and philanthropy, projecting racist tropes of Native Americans in order to catch the attention of middle-class caucasian donors. Indeed, the donors themselves will likely be frustrated at having been deceived and may even cease their giving.
Others in the debate, however, contend that the school was merely aggregating students’ experiences and then fundraising for what is ultimately an invaluable service for hundreds of kids. The school has shot back at CNN for being “loose with the facts,” ignoring the honest operations of the school and the good it does for its pupils.
What remains to be seen is whether or not the fictionalized accounts—which, up until now, were chiefly responsible for St. Joseph’s successful fundraising—will end up tanking the school’s annual earnings.