Reflections3 Comments

I’m a case manager for homeless youth. I make a joke of a salary, work long hours, and have to wrestle with bureaucracy at every turn just to accomplish simple tasks. Yet, there’s nothing else I’d rather do. This is not because I’m a selfless person, it’s because the positive impact I observe in the lives of these kids is worth more to me than a good salary. There is nothing noble about this; I’m simply pissed off at society for its injustice and coping with my privilege-guilt by working with an underprivileged population.

Volunteering for a nonprofit is often seen as the apex of noble sacrifice. Having recruited, trained and managed over a thousand volunteers, I can tell you the key to forming a successful, ongoing relationship between a volunteer and an organization is not to assign tasks that are extremely helpful to the organization’s mission. The key is to provide them with tasks that provide an immediate sense of personal accomplishment, regardless of actual impact.

Those without the time to volunteer often donate, but in the age of internet transparency, they usually view this donation as more of a purchase. They want to know exactly what they’ll be buying with their donation. So nonprofits make up little sponsorship packages and translate arbitrary dollar amounts into some sort of tangible impact. Your $50 helps provide GED training and testing for one homeless teenager fleeing domestic violence. Actually it melts into a pool of unrestricted funding and the nonprofit does whatever they want with it. And they need that autonomy, but the truth doesn’t make you feel special when you send in your check.


3 Comments on “Selflessish”

  1. Anonymous

    “The key is to provide them with tasks that provide an immediate sense of personal accomplishment, regardless of actual impact.” Is this not the reason why capitalism works. The sense of value per dollar spent. In an age of desired instant gratification, to encourage a greater than zero sized populace to do something, a reward must be realized at speeds that near immediate.

    1. Judy

      While people certainly do have a problem with craving and expecting instant gratification, I think it does us a disservice to conflate the need for speed with a desire to impact the world positively. I think the problem addressed in this post may be an extension of the latter–simply that people don’t want to feel helpless, and that they want to know that their time or money is actually being used to positive effect. A myopic focus on this element can still be counterproductive in the ways that Soren points out– especially because wanting to feel helpful actually renders their work less helpful in some cases, and because it can feed into a very self-centered mindset where it’s more about how you feel than if others truly benefit. However, I think there’s a way to channel it into something good– and I think it speaks to people’s (sometimes) necessary but misinformed pragmatism as much as anything else.

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