Image of Tiffany Persons via Mindvalley
Last week week iOnPoverty featured Tiffany Persons of the NGO Shine On Sierra Leone. Here’s a bit of what the email shared with its readers:
When someone asks you why you’re interested in changing the world, is your answer something like: “Because it feels good to do good”? If so, Pathfinder Tiffany Persons, says be careful. “It’s an addiction and no one talks about this.” Her bottom line: filling an internal void with doing good is not okay – it will leave you unhappy in the end and it will negatively impact the people you seek to help. So examine your motives carefully.
Pathfinder Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg said something similar when she noted: “The most useless people in the world are driven by guilt.”
Jonathan Lewis continued on Huffington Post:
If you think “doing good” is a recovery program for a deadend career, or a panacea for personal happiness, or a path towards building a personal brand, forget it. As Tiffany notes, “If you don’t find happiness where you are right now, you are going to be unhappy in the social sector.”
As Levitt and Dubner summed up in SuperFreakonomics, “Most giving is… impure altruism or warm-glow altruism. You give not only because you want to help, but because it makes you look good, or feel good, or perhaps feel less bad.” The same can hold true for casual volunteerism and, all-too-often, for switching from a soulless industry to a mission-driven career.
At first glance, perhaps, this kind of thinking could seem controversial. But I think that the social enterprise community becomes sanitized into this idea that good is good is good is good. In a lot of ways, it’s not about what you do necessarily but how you do it. Being in the social business or non-profit industry doesn’t necessarily make you a better person.
I’ve encountered this in the flesh while I was completing my undergraduate degree in Montreal in International Development Studies. The very name of the program, i.e. the “development” part, suggests a sort of ownership about what development means and to whom. The main lens through which development is traditionally looked at is economic, even though many of my brilliant professors do make an effort to remind the students that there simply aren’t enough resources for every country to industrialize like the West has (which feeds into the “West versus the Rest” idea). The field also subscribes to a sense of nationalism that is problematic in many cases and ignores marginalized populations.
But it was really the students, no, I can’t place blame on the students. Rather, it was (and is) the industry that really rubbed me the wrong way especially after a few years knee-deep in the program. It’s about the language, too, that “go volunteer in an Indian orphanage for four weeks and change lives” type of mentality. While I don’t find anything necessarily wrong with voluntourism, there’s a sense that it’s good no matter what. But like everything, including social good careers, it’ necessary to question the why.
As always, this is something to think about. My posts on this blog are about being critical, living consciously and challenging the norm. And we all know that we can create micro-norms within our own fields, workplaces and minds.