Episode 59: Ruth Fitzgibbons

Ruth Miller Fitzgibbons and George have a fascinating conversation on this episode of Good God about the importance of nonprofit work and her role in helping them do and be all that they can.

Listen to the podcast and read the transcript below, or click here for the full video.

George : 00:00 In the work of making our communities the best they can be. There's certainly government that plays a role at educational institutions, faith communities also. But the work of nonprofits, especially faith based nonprofits is a unique role. Ruth Fitzgibbons has been at work to help them be all they can be and you'll hear more from her on Good God coming up. Stay tuned.

George : 00:34 Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith in public life. I'm George Mason, your host, and I'm pleased to introduce today to our program, Ruth Fitzgibbons. She is principal at the Richards Group and has really been one of those people that has worked in the community to help make life better for people through her work, especially with nonprofits. Ruth is also an elder at her Presbyterian church, Preston Hollow Presbyterian. And so Ruth, I'd like to just sort of begin there if we could, because, Good God is always trying to look at the intersection between people's faith and vocation. So tell us a little bit about your faith journey and we'll start there and then move into the work aspect.

Ruth: 01:24 Well, thank you and thank you for having me. I'd say my faith journey is a bit checkered since I grew up in a family that couldn't quite decide whether they were Presbyterian or Methodist and we had kind of spotty attendance at various Presbyterian and Methodist church churches in Dallas. And then in a story that is sort of a famous lore in my family. My father who was a brilliant man and deeply curious about the world, was a voracious reader, had claimed to have read the Bible multiple times went through a period of great questioning. And the story goes that he asked so many questions to I won't name names, but a certain pastor at the time of a certain Presbyterian church that, that pastor retired. Yeah.

George : 02:34 Because he was so exhausted.

Ruth: 02:37 and, and maybe started questioning some things himself. I don't know how much truth there is in that. But at the same time, my father was a very significant and important civic leader in Dallas. He was part of the team that desegregated the luncheon counters. He was a founder of the salesmanship clubs camps for troubled youth, president of the salesmanship club when he died, he died at 61 very suddenly. And actually he, that year he was president of the Greater Dallas Community Council, which is all about inclusion and yeah. So can I just say that was kind of confusing? Uh, because you know, on the one hand, I had certainly had a smattering of Sunday school learning and, church attendance, but never really very sustained. And on the other hand, you know, I saw this magnificent man with a heart for all kinds of people that he didn't know. And in fact, people used to show up on our doorstep, seeking his counsel. So he was quite impactful in terms of human need and improving society in Dallas. And then when I got to high school, I had a crush on a boy who went to Preston Hollow Presbyterian and I joined the church. Yes. On my own. Also, my best friend was part of the youth house there. So I started going to Preston Hollow returning to church by myself.

George : 04:26 And so we call that we call that missionary dating. Yeah,

Ruth: 04:29 yeah, exactly. Yeah. I just wanted to hold hands in church all I was hoping and, that really led me to that church, which has been a huge part of my life ever since. Even though I left for college, moved to New York and lived there for 11 years. So I was gone for quite a while. But when we moved to Dallas or moved, I moved back to Dallas. We had small children and enrolled them at the preschool and kind of started going to church there. And that was, my older son is 39. So that was a long time.

George : 05:07 Well, and we, we have churches, yours and mine, Wilshire Baptist, that I like to say that, if you actually are in either one of those churches and you close your eyes and didn't know where you were, you might make a mistake because they feel an awful lot alike, even though the brand name on the outside is different in its tradition. And this is actually true about religion in America generally today is it's not always the middle name of the church that matters as much, you know, whether Presbyterian or baptist, there are other kinds of divisions among churches, but there's a lot more likeness sometimes among churches of different denominations that have a kind of worldview that is similar, a sense of how to live your faith in the community and in your everyday life. And Preston Hollow Pres and Wilshire Baptist are two very kindred spirit churches, oddly enough about that.

Ruth: 06:06 No, I know. And Yeah, you know, when you, it's this faith journey is hard to define it. In my case, it's still going on

George : 06:17 in everybody's case. Let's be honest. Right. Mine too.

Ruth: 06:20 And I really love, I love the way our longtime pastor, Blair Monie, who passed away a couple of weeks ago, was quite significant in my life and I was thinking, reflecting in fact on Sunday after his service, I started reading all of his caring bridge entries again. I started at the bottom cause I want to really take my time with them because they, one of the, one of the lines in the service, and I know you were there, was he had so many important sermons about how to live your life, how to live out your faith in the world and in the community. But those caring bridge posts are sermons in really how to deal with a diagnosis of a serious illness and ultimately how to die. And I sure hope they don't take them down.

George : 07:19 Well, they are a model for us. I followed them all the way through as well. And I kept marveling at every step. I kept asking myself, would I be able to say those things? And you don't know until you're there, of course. But what was beautiful about them is that, the person you knew all those years was the same person you knew when he knew that he was dying. And so the faith that he delivered to others was a faith he lived himself. And that integrity and the dependability of it, the way it was proved out in his dying is such a witness as it is. It really, it validates everything about who he was and what he believed.

Ruth: 08:05 Exactly. Yeah. You know, backing up from that and you know, you asked kind of about the intersection of faith and then what I do for a living. And there are a lot of places we can go with that. But one of the things, and just while we're on the topic of Blair Monie, one of the things that I'll never forget. So one of the things that we do at our discipline and team at the Richards group is connect our clients. And with the news media. And we help them as you know, through those situations which can be tricky and are always stress inducing for all parties. And Blair was going to be leading the Presbyterian general assembly, Presbyterian USA General Assembly in it's vote final vote on the LGBT. And so I went over to the church, you know, a couple of weeks or several weeks before he was traveling to do this and we role play that. I had to get, he did a fantastic job by all accounts of, of kind of making all sides feel that at least the process was survivable. But he also did a fabulous job representing the general assembly.

George : 09:45 Well in that, and that was spoken about in the service too. And I think so what we're talking about here is that every Christian denomination in America, every religion in America is dealing with the question of what role LGTBQ folk play in our churches and whether they are going to be fully included or continue to be marginalized. And in certain ways that you know, to be fair historically has been true and has been true based upon written texts and traditions of our churches. But your church and my church have both gone through the process that led us beautifully, I think in both cases to say, that we're not going to put modifiers before somebody else's Christian faith, that everybody is welcome in our church. And Blair really did that in a way, not only in your local church, but denominationally to help that happen.

George : 10:54 And of course, Presbyterians are famous for doing things decently and in order after all, you know, very civilly. That is not the history of baptists. You know, Harry Truman once said, I am not a member of any organized religion. I'm a baptist. You know, and so, unfortunately in our case it was a bit more contentious and I was not nearly as deft, I'm sure as Blair would have been, but I dare him to have done it as a baptist. But, but what I'm saying is this is an indicator of the kind of faith tradition that each of us favors is not so much whether it's Presbyterian or baptist, it's a worldview. It's a way we live out our faith and our churches do that in similar fashion. And you are a lay leader in that church. You are an elder in the Presbyterian church. What does it mean for, for people who might be Baptist or Episcopalians or something else out there. What does it mean to be an elder?

Ruth: 11:59 I'm actually not an elder. I've been on a number of strategic planning committees. Foundations. Right now my role there is actually I as a trustee of the foundation. We have, we had some foresighted members in the early nineties that, put together a foundation to try and grow an endowment for any kind of time that the church might need some extra help there. And so that's really my role right now. But you know, I hope I'm considered a lay leader, in that I have helped on a number of occasions with, you know, again, the tools and the toolbox of my trade, right. Focus groups. We've just rewritten a vision statement. And you know, language matters. And our new pastor Matthew Ruffner, wanting to bring kind of a fresh process to defining what our vision is. And of course that's a lot of what we do. The Richards group has helped all kinds of organizations, but me specifically more in the nonprofit area. Help them put language around what it is that they're here to do.

George : 13:36 And people would probably be laughing if, you know, 2000 years ago they heard that the church needed branding and mission statements and all that sort of thing. But on the other hand, here we are at a point in history where a myriad of churches and people are unsure as to how to distinguish the way people approach the faith and one to the next. And so how you portray yourself and how you communicate, it's an important part of that.

Ruth: 14:09 And how you tell yourself who you are. I honestly think right now, this New Vision statement is very fresh. And I'm sitting here hoping I can remember it. I'm not sure I can come up with exact words, but the second part of it is an acting as if we all belong to God. And, I'm sorry, it's: We all belong to God, and we all belong to each other, is the essence of it. And Matthew has been preaching a whole series of sermons since right after Labor Day on what each piece of that means. But when you get to the part about if we all belong to God and we all belong to each other, that I think takes us into the territory that my work has been active in, which is doing things with various organizations that see themselves as stewards or one way or another of helping people that need our help.

George : 15:20 And actually this is a good point for us to break because we're going to have a word about a nonprofit that is dear to your heart that you're working with right now. And then we'll come back and talk more about that work you do.

Speaker 4: 15:33 After 8 to Educate is the first all encompassing program to support unsheltered high school youth in Dallas by offering them education and a safe place as a pathway out of homelessness and poverty. The Fanny C Harris Youth Center will house both a drop in center and residential services. For more information visit after8toeducate.com.

George : 16:00 We're back with Ruth Fitzgibbons and what she does is work essentially in public relations work and media relations and the like with the Richards Group. But Ruth your focus has been in the nonprofit world since you've been there. I know you had to convince Stan Richards that was something you could actually do and make a profit out of. But so you do for-profit work for nonprofits essentially and lots of pro bono work I'm sure as well.

Ruth: 16:34 Well, the pro bono is kind of baked in and what we realized and, and Stan, I joke about it, but he has been enormously supportive of, uh, really everything the agency has done for the nonprofit community. Most especially his favorite charity, the Salvation Army, which I'll talk about in a minute. But we think we... A lot of agencies will pick one organization and basically give their services for free. Well, we had, we kept building nonprofit clients and a portfolio of clients that all, which we don't make a profit on our time, but we served at our cost rates. And we recognize that you really just can't, you can't say I'm going to take money from you and not take money from you. I mean, it needed to be fair across the board. So we just ended up telling people this is, this is how we do it. And we'll make it as affordable as we possibly can and which we do. And we probably spend two hours for every one hour we charge. But right.

George : 17:52 But you've, you've had some tremendous clients in the nonprofit world and with branding mottos that have been memorable. Well, let's do the Salvation Army for instance: "Doing the most good." And how beautiful is that? And I served on the Children's Medical Foundation of Children's Medical Center board for a long while and: "Making life better for children." I mean these kinds of things that just roll off the tongue and you...

New Speaker: 18:41 Not off of my tongue, but some talented writer.

George : 18:41 Nonetheless. This is, this is where it comes from in the process of hammering out in the branding conversations, how that comes about. And yet it becomes a tremendous way of being able to articulate a mission of an organization.

Ruth: 18:41 And the other really great one is M.D. Anderson's,

George : 18:45 "Making cancer history." Exactly right. Yes.

Ruth: 18:50 If I had a dime for every client that says I need one. Okay.

George : 18:54 I need one of those. Yes. We all do one of those. Isn't that doing the most good?

Ruth: 18:58 Good is, is to me that the whole story of, of how it was developed and then probably even more importantly, how it was received in the organization. It actually, Stan Richards was on the board, the advisory board of the DFW organization here and, this is very much like him, he was appalled by how fractured and fragmented their communications were. That they were all saying different things and it all looked different. And to him, not pretty. And so he did do pro bono. Take them through our branding process. And, the term "doing the most good" grew out of this workshop where it was kind of a combination of, they do so many things that it's really hard to explain what they do. It's a lot easier to be the red cross or feeding America because everybody knows kind of what you do.

Ruth: 20:06 But the Salvation Army, their mission, which is a hundred years old, is meeting human need in His name. Without discrimination. Well, that's a pretty big mission. And so what that means is that they end up doing whatever the need is and whatever the community is. And so there, there needed to be some way to talk about that in shorthand. But the really great Richard's group taglines are always kind of double entendres. And so they also have a reputation for being great stewards of their donors' dollars. And I think 82 cents of every dollar goes to direct services. Again, the most good. Doing the most good. Right. So of course I'm sure I wasn't working on it then, but I'm sure they all came out of that workshop and were just, you know, so proud of that great line, which then went on to be, you know, on trucks and everywhere.

Ruth: 21:14 But I was just gonna say that it wasn't as readily received by the rank and file officers throughout the country as you would think. And the reason was, and it's very much a part of their personality. They are so humble. They thought it sounded like bragging. But again, that was a process of, it took a couple of years probably to sell it in. But today everyone loves it. And in fact, you can call an officer in San Diego and get a voicemail message that says, I can't come to the phone right now. I'm doing the most good. So, well, I think it's been completely adopted now. First people weren't sure whether they should say it.

George : 22:02 Well, I think I should say too that I know enough about you and what you do with these organizations, that it's not just a front end sort of a branding process, but say Salvation Army, is a case in point when our mutual friend Jay Pritchard was working for you and was working with the Salvation Army on that "without discrimination" part. They needed a lot of help to be able to communicate that a traditional conservative Christian organization that was fully serving the interests of LGBT persons who were in need was not discriminating in their own hiring practices and those sorts of things and how that would be managed. They, they weren't able to do it well themselves. And that's also where you came in to help them find their way through that.

Ruth: 22:54 We have worked tirelessly for the past six years because there are some myths and misperceptions and outright distortions of incidents that, you know, may or may not have happened 15 to 20 years ago to some person who went to a shelter. I mean, what we learned to say or taught ourselves to say is, you know, first of all, it's a really large organization. There certainly could be a person somewhere who didn't share the, or didn't fully embrace the mission of Salvation Army somehow. But this very morning I came here from a meeting with the national commander David Hudson and his wife, Sharon Hudson, national commanders and commissioners at their headquarters. And just this morning he made an impassioned speech just privately in our room as we were talking about how we have to continue to get across to everyone we serve and those who serve with us as donors and volunteers, that it's all about our mission. That is our mission. And that's what he was saying just this morning. He always says it just like that: "to meet human need in his name without discrimination." That is our mission. So it always comes back to that. How can we exclude someone who has need and is made in the image of God. And you know, it's, it's our duty.

Ruth: 24:46 So it's been such an interesting experience in the business world. To be serving this client. And you know, I've gotten used to it now, but when I first started working with them six years ago, I wasn't accustomed to praying for every business meeting. To in a, you know, Steven Piles, restaurant, you know, holding hands and blessing the food. And a lot of meetings start with a devotional. Which I've come to just love. And these officers are just the most wonderful people, and their stories and their knowledge of scripture and their love of God has really been instructive and inspiring. You talking about an intersection of business and faith doesn't get much closer than that.

George : 25:44 So there's, there are faith communities, there are nonprofits, and then there are faith based nonprofits. This is a faith based nonprofit, but it's actually also a church. Most people really don't realize that about the Salvation Army. It's also a church. But, talk a little bit about the distinctive character of faith based nonprofits over against nonprofits who are also doing, you know, much good work and doing the Lord's work. But not so much in God's name. So much as in the name of humanity you might say. And so, in your experience, how do you see those as being distinguished one from the other? What's the, what's the different qualities about them?

Ruth: 26:29 You know, that's a great question. I think in some faith based nonprofits that are like dark Dallas shared ministries, or the Stewpot or, the soup kitchen or, you know, it seems like they're not all that different from a motive, but some other motivation that leads someone to work at the Bridge, for example. So I think they're probably more alike than they are disalike. But what's so unique about the Salvation Army is that the officers who are serving you are all pastors. Right? And, you know, one of the famous sayings of the founder of the Salvation Army is "soup, soap, and then salvation." So the whole organization back in the 1850s in London, the East End of London was, and it's based on Methodism because he was part of a Methodist Church, William Booth, and he did not see his church serving, you know, the Bowery, right. Bums and drunks and out and prostitutes that were, you know, living on the streets. So that's really where it started. And it hasn't strayed all that far. It had strayed far from there, but I know that, that belief that, if you feed a man and clothe a man and you know, meet his basic human needs and then show him the way to God and to Christ, you have transformed a life.

George : 28:20 Well, that's right. It is different, but the particular thing it would, that is that you, you have to try to maintain the fact that you're doing this regardless of whether they respond to the message of faith. At the end of the day, you know, you're right, this is not a manipulative process where you're doing a bait and switch or some sort of thing where you just trying to lure them into the faith in some way, but, but it really comes from a holistic vision about the wellness of life completely. And also doesn't demand that they have to sit and listen to a sermon before they can have a bowl of soup. No, not at all. It's completely voluntary. That's it. Right. And other places do that, but not the Salvation Army.

Ruth: 29:10 No, they don't. But I think, you know, in their heart of hearts, they offer that, that spiritual and emotional care during disasters, during all kinds of life's traumatic journeys. And because that's how their lives have been transformed. And a lot of the younger officers who work in their adult rehabilitation centers and are graduates of the program, they've seen their lives changed. It's just an interesting, you know, kind of going back to my father, we know that that work can happen and be effective and transformative in lives, you know, maybe without that as the avowed grounding. But I think there's definitely a place in society, especially given the inability of government to solve a lot of problems and there are a lot of different perspectives on what the government should be doing.

Ruth: 30:20 Um, and I think back even when George W. Bush was president and he really wanted to emphasize faith based institutions and even in that, even in league with the government, which has been a very challenging, uh, church state question.

George : 30:36 But, uh, there've been models of how to do that and that was a bold initiative I think that has born some good fruit.

Ruth: 30:47 Well, and the Salvation Army, I think 13% of their funding comes from government programs and grants. Often in a particular city, they'll actually be hired by the government to run a housing program or right, right. You know, so we have to have more of that and, I think it plays a really important role. Well your daddy's daughter has carried forward with that mission and brought some faith ingredient to it as well. Thank you for how you've made life better for Dallas as a matter of fact, Ruth. We're so glad to have you on.

Speaker 4: 31:29 Good God is created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White. Guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Good God, conversations with George Mason, is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God and faith and the common good. All material copyright 2019 by Faith Commons. After 8 to Educate, is the first all encompassing program to support unsheltered high school youth in Dallas. By offering them education and a safe place as a pathway out of homelessness and poverty. The Fanny C Harris Youth Center will house both a drop in center and residential services. For more information, visit after8toeducate.com.

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