Letter to Doris: The Importance of Dignity, Community, Respect, and Collective Humanity in Philanthropy

We are proud of the work we do to support resilient individuals across the country, and excited to announce the appointment of Amy Kingman as the executive director of the Letters Foundation.

Amy joined Letters Foundation in 2016 and has worked to implement new strategies for increasing grantmaking, in addition to positioning us to deliver on our mission of supporting those who have fallen on hard times.  For Amy, it all comes back to that central mission and Doris’s philosophy of paying it forward.  Below is a letter Amy wrote to Doris explaining why the Letters Foundation means so much to her, as well as so many others in the community:

Dear Doris,

Words can’t really describe what it means to me to be a part of your life’s mission of restoring hope to people from all around the country. I’ll try to find a few.

Your vision for the Letters Foundation sounded so simple: to provide people and families who have fallen on hard times with a place to be heard, and to match them with resources to help address whatever challenge they are facing.  In reality this effort is huge, beautiful, hard, and an incredible learning experience. My faith is restored as I walk through the door each day and see staff and volunteers bustling about scanning letters, discussing cases, and speaking with clients. In a world where most can’t be bothered to break from their phones or computers to look each other in the eye, the Letters Foundation reads, listens, and strives to understand the lived experiences of everyone who writes to us. Unique doesn’t even begin to describe our work.

I’ve been involved personally and professionally in the work of community-based nonprofits for almost my entire life. When I was a child growing up in rural Maine, my parents took my sisters and me to protests, to PTA meetings, and to community clean up events constantly.  Even through college, our parents required that we all return home in the summer to volunteer at the local firefighters’ annual fundraiser. This wasn’t something that my parents read about in a book or went to lectures to learn about; it was simply the reality of living in our community. We did our best to take care of each other – just like the Letters Foundation team supports one another – because that’s what community does.

There’s one memory of what being brought up in this type of community meant that has always stayed with me. In addition to attending firefighter fundraisers and PTA meetings, I was in charge of helping my dad deliver town reports to every house on an annual basis. As we dropped off the reports, we were supposed to ask each family if they had any questions about the upcoming town meeting. In second grade, I vividly remember my dad dropping me off in front of the house of one of my classmates.  This house was in desperate need of repairs and the kids inside were often getting in trouble at my small elementary school. My dad stayed in the car and sent me on my way to deliver the report and ask my scripted questions. Once I entered the yard, I saw one of my classmates – let’s call him Steve – standing in his yard down the hill. I balled up the report and threw it to him, shouting “Hey! Here’s your report” and quickly booked it back to the car.

My dad watched me in silence for a few minutes. “I’m incredibly disappointed in you,” he finally said. “Don’t worry about it, Dad” I shrugged. “It’s only Steve; he doesn’t really matter. He’s always getting in trouble and he comes to school all dirty and stuff.”

What my dad said next has stuck with me since I was eight. Patiently, my dad reminded me that I was expected to treat every single human being with the same respect, no matter their life circumstances; that I was representing the town and our family; and, most importantly, that Steve and his family were just as much a part of this town as me, or anyone else. Then, he handed me another copy of the town report, and pushed me out of the car door, telling me to try again. I dragged my second-grade-self back to Steve’s front door, knocked, waited, and handed him the report gently. I asked him if he had any questions about the upcoming town meeting and said that I hoped to see him there.

Respect. Here at the Letters Foundation, we aim to treat every single person that writes to us with respect.

As I went on to college and graduate school, I was (not surprisingly) attracted to social work and a career in nonprofits. In my early 20s, my now-husband asked me what my vision for the world was. I knew my belief system was grounded in that moment I had with my dad when I was eight. I believe that we should ensure that every person is treated with dignity, no matter what.

Here at the Letters Foundation, we abide by the rule “every letter read.” Together, a small group of staff and 100 volunteers pool efforts to bring a little more humanity to each interaction we have with clients. And in the end, we are the truly lucky ones. There’s no better way to learn about yourself than to listen to others. By showing up, logging on, and opening the mail, we recommit to our collective humanity each day.

Unique. Community. Respect. Dignity. Collective humanity. Words much easier to espouse than to live by (just ask my eight-year-old self).

Doris, you have lived by these words longer, and in more meaningful ways, than all of us who are lucky enough to be a part of your efforts now.

We thank you.


Amy Kingman, Executive Director of the Letters Foundation and Learning by Giving Foundation