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September 5, 2005
George McDonald - ready, willing & able

by Robin Rusch
Twenty years ago, George McDonald launched The Doe Fund in New York City to "empower homeless men and women to achieve lives of self-sufficiency." He and his wife Harriet started the Ready, Willing & Able program ten years later to help return the homeless to lives of independence through a residential paid work and training program.

The Doe Fund (whose name conveys the anonymity of being homeless) and Ready, Willing & Able promote their cause to supporters with a unique mixture of compassion and practicality. Promotional literature is heartbreaking but not maudlin, participant portrayals raise concern but not pity. It is this combination of smart communications material in one's mailbox along with actual sightings on the street of men and women dressed in distinctive clean uniforms of the Ready, Willing & Able program that is a one-two punch for potential donors.

We sat down with founder McDonald to discuss his savvy ability to attract attention for his cause in a city that is often accused of overlooking its homeless.

"So much of our identity revolves around the easy, recognizable uniforms and logo of our Ready, Willing & Able crew. We put out about 250 guys on the street cleaning up everyday, seven days a week. We have our logo on the uniforms, we have our logo on the garbage bags; [we're] making mental impressions -- some of them subliminal, some of them conscious. We have 60 vans that we transport people with, basically in a small, dense area, where people see them all the time. They're as familiar to New Yorkers as FedEx.

Right now, all these years later, most everybody knows who we are. Everybody doesn't know what we are, so that's an additional challenge to us. They know the Doe Fund, they know Ready, Willing & Able, but they don't necessarily know that we're funded by their contributions, and that we help homeless people, ex-offenders and former substance abusers to get to the mainstream economically.

There are really good ways in which one can get your message out. The guys on the street are the most successful way, because people come up to them and ask them who they are, and thank them for the wonderful job that they're doing. Next we do direct mail. We have our own direct mail facility, where we use it as training. We send out letters explaining who we are to people. Consequently we've got close to 40 thousand people now who send us money. We send out about a million pieces [of direct mail] a year, and we raise about three dollars from each one that we send -- about 3 million dollars.

Our marketing message starts with the guy before he's in the uniform, so that when he goes out onto the street, he's going to act courteously to you. They're going to be gentlemen, dressed appropriately, and identified, so that if people don't like what's going on it's very easy for them to pick up the telephone and call me. P.S.: that never happens, because we take the drugs away. Once you take the drugs away from the guy, he's out there trying to put his life together; he's not thinking of doing bad things or acting out. We drug test twice a week, so no one out on the streets is actively using drugs.

It's very difficult to get a person's story down into 100 words and have it be emotional and uplifting. Each person is unique; they never become a clich? because it's an individual story. What we try to get across is that we are of the city -- that we are here for the city.

When you go and site facilities in people's neighborhood, they don't like you. It goes all the way from saying I'm going to kill you, and having people across the street from your house. But at the end of the day, what happens? You open up the facility, the people see that it's run properly. The one in East Williamsburg, the community sued us. We put in all this work, and got lawsuits, all of that -- P.S.: the area had prostitution and drugs -- and now the 90th police precinct has given us an award for improving public safety in the neighborhood where the facility is. So rather than being some kind of a detriment or drain, we've actually improved the community. That's what happens every place that we go, but the process of getting there...

So it's a combination of working the media and just doing our job and still going until people realize that it's not a threat. If we're not trying to start a facility in somebody's neighborhood, then they all love us, and I'm a saint and the organization is wonderful. Move into the neighborhood, and I'm the devil and the organization is corrupt.

Basically, we graduate over 50 percent of the people who come into our program. Remember that they all are black or Hispanic; their average age is 38 years old, they've had 18 or 19 years of substance abuse, and have been convicted on average of three felonies. (Five percent of the homeless people in New York City are Caucasian, 95 percent are black and Hispanic, with the largest number being about 65 percent black.)

Our job is to take them and turn them into productive, tax-paying citizens who support their families and go to work. We're supposed to do that in nine to twelve months. It's not so easy to do, but we get over half of them jobs and a place to live at the end of that time. At the end of the year, 70 some odd percent are still employed. So we have an aftercare component; we bring them back for the first five months if they are working for somebody else, and give them 200 dollars a month if they give us a drug test. There are things that are built into our program that keep them in touch with us. We act as their family for them.

Most social services organizations don't understand the concept of revenue generation. We took a bunch of men and went to work and generated revenue to pay for the cost of the program and the wages of men. You have to have some confidence in the men to begin with. That's the key to success with everything we've done. It's built on our faith and belief, and the work of the individual human beings. Instead of seeing the guy that looks like a pile of garbage on the floor in Grand Central terminal, you see somebody's who's got a life, who can be redeemed and can contribute and grow, if you give them structured opportunity."

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