How to Be of Active Service

by | Dec 29, 2015 | Uncategorized

Since 1989, Utah has maintained a Homeless Trust Fund, which raises money through contributions made by checking a box on state income tax forms. Most of the contributions are small—only one or two dollars. But they add up to a significant sum that is divvied up every year among various programs that serve the homeless.

That paragraph from The Deseret News describes a fund whose full name includes that of Pamela Atkinson, a longtime activist for the homeless, and advisor to the last three governors of Utah.

Some other states have similar affordable housing funds, which collect money in the same way, but Utah’s apparently has some extra features, like supporting nutrition and anti-addiction programs and even health care services. Homeless advocates would like to see more money dedicated to early intervention, preferring to help people before they actually lose everything and hit the streets.

Some speculate that publicity about the state’s success in reducing homelessness has actually backfired, and worry that potential donors don’t realize there are still people experiencing homelessness, or at risk. In 1990 the Homeless Trust Fund took in $300,000, but in 2014 it only collected less than one/sixth that amount ($48,000). Still, many people have been helped and are still being helped.

How to Do the Most Good in the World

Of course, Pamela Atkinson does a lot of other things, like organize a yearly Christmas dinner for people experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake City. In 2012, Devin Thorpe interviewed her for Forbes, and came away with what is for all practical purposes, a textbook authored by an effective and respected activist, on how to do the most good in the world. We won’t include all 13 principles, because the source article deserves to be read.

One thing that helps in any endeavor is to keep ego out of it. The idea is not to ride in like a savior on a white horse, but to empower the people whose lives are most affected by the change you are working for. Change needs to be owned by the people in whose daily lives the difference will manifest. This segues into the next principle: collaboration. It takes a whole lot of coordination and cooperation to get the ball rolling, and to gain momentum and bring a community project to the point of sustainability takes even more collaboration.

Of Pamela Atkinson in fundraising mode, Thorpe says:

When she hears “no,” she asks, “What can I do to help change your mind?” She offers to provide tours, introductions, whatever it will take to change a mind. Her approach has made her one of the most successful fundraisers in Utah.

Don’t burn bridges. Relationships need to be respected, and so do volunteers. For the organization that is being built, Atkinson recommends absolute transparency from day one. Anyone who gives time and energy should be able to know anything about the project. Perhaps the most important thing is to speak up, especially about injustice, because you never know how far your influence may reach. Thorpe says:

She’s learned that even when everyone in the room openly opposes her, she’ll often get private indications of support from people who are grateful for her leadership.

Source: “Check it: Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund donation option on state income tax form,”, 02/15/15
Source: “13 Lessons From A Great Social Entrepreneur, Pamela Atkinson,”, 09/23/12
Image by Garrett