2010 ushered in do-goodism 2.0. The opportunities to check-in, check-out, or slack-out “for good” have never been greater. Voluntourism is on the rise, as people want to see and feel more of their vacation destination than a five-star resort may offer. But there are downsides, as I recently discovered at a cocktail party fundraiser.
The otherwise delightful woman to whom I was speaking was explaining how she and her husband had recently traveled to Cambodia with their kids in order to give the teenagers an understanding of poverty and their responsibility to help others less fortunate than themselves. I was interested.
When planning the trip, she explained, her kids had immediately dismissed Habitat for Humanity and other “traditional” groups because they wanted an authentic, personal experience. Prior to the trip, they’d gone online and researched places they could go and things they could do. They’d found a small village that was building a library and some houses and that needed materials and books. “Perfect,” she thought. Emails were exchanged, arrangements were made.
But, she then went on to explain, the trip had all but been ruined by the fact that when they arrived the locals took the books and materials they’d brought and proceeded to build the structures themselves. Her kids, who had planned what they wanted to do and how they would direct the building process, were sidelined by locals who took over and did all the work themselves. Her kids were invited to participate, but they weren’t allowed to lead “their” projects. The goal of the trip, she complained, had been for her kids to feel how they could make a difference and this experience hadn’t provided that at all. “Overall, it left a bad taste in their mouths for future volunteer work,” she concluded.
It was then that I yelled, “It’s not about you!”
In my head.
Aloud, I asked her politely, “Whose volunteer experience is this anyway?”
Nick Kristoff’s recent New York Times piece on Do It Yourself Aid raised similar feelings. While it is great to get out and feel like “I’ve made a difference,” shouldn’t the emphasis in that sentence be on “made a difference” and not “I?” When the primary purpose of volunteerism or aid work becomes our own experience of self-fulfillment, we’ve crossed a line. And unfortunately, sometimes the term social entrepreneur with its emphasis on one person, is synonymous with a “me” orientation that is antithetical to strategies that have been effective in creating lasting social change. Similarly, some social enterprises may be praised for taking a bold approach that makes perfect sense to donors, but which might not be highly prioritized by those receiving. Recent criticisms of TOMS Shoes and other “buy one, give one” programs raise important issues. If TOMS Shoes are being sourced and made locally, then that is sustainable change. If they are shipped in, then it’s mostly plain vanilla charity with excellent marketing. Almost by definition, these donor- or giver-centered approaches can leave out indigenous/local groups that are working to help themselves, but keep getting left out of others “solutions.”
So that begs the question, how much should one’s own need for achievement, media, or notoriety influence decisions about giving? Volunteering? When, as funders, do our demands for metrics and causality shift from necessary rigor and become instead attempts to assign egotistical ownership? When is our desire to develop a strategy that is “unlike other foundations” truly innovative, and when is it merely chest thumping?
For foundations, I think strategic philanthropy, as outlined by many of CEPs studies and reports, gives a great framework for allowing impact — not ego — to drive action. And personally? Well I love feeling that I’m making a difference, whether it is buying green products or volunteering or contributing to organizations I love. By doing these things I create a sense of community, connection, and empathy that benefits me as well as those on the other end of that support. The act of giving is mutually beneficial. But at the end of the day, it’s not only about me. Giving, volunteering, and the work done to support nonprofits becomes transformative when the goal is something much larger than just one person’s pride or fame or even self-actualization.
Do you have strategies for keeping your ego in check?
This piece was originally posted on the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s blog which can be found at http://www.effectivephilanthropy.org. I am a member of CEPs board of directors.
This piece is my first post for the Center for Effective Philanthropy as a guest blogger. The Center for Effective Philanthropy (www.effectivephilanthropy.org) provides foundations with comparative data to enable higher performance. Over the years, CEPs surveys of grantees has changed the way the foundations I have worked at have operated. And CEP provides benchmarking that helped us compare ourselves to similar foundations and to our own performance over time. Despite my move to Singapore, I continue to sit on CEPs board. These blogs will be a few of my thoughts on philanthropy, NGOs, aid, Asia and effectiveness.
When I was fresh-faced and just starting to work in philanthropy at a woman-focused community foundation, I made lists. I would write down the problem or issue I wanted to tackle, then make a list of reasonable solutions. For example:
- Make it a crime
- Lock up the criminals
- Get women legal services for safety & to pay for the divorce
- Provide counseling for the kids
- Get mom a job
Then I would look at the money I had available (never enough) and divide it equally among each of the reasonable solutions. Confident I was doing all I could to address the problem of family violence, I talked earnestly with the board of directors about the importance of our “multi-faceted” approach. (now, that word looks quaint, but trust me you used it a lot in the 80s too).
Next, I would turn to the giant map of Los Angeles we’d hung on the wall and divided into what we called neighborhoods, but which were really more economic descriptors than geographic locations—South Central LA (Compton but not Ladera), Westside (Venice, but not Santa Monica), Hollywood (but not West Hollywood).
We would push pins into the places where we made grants—red for violence prevention, blue for economic development, green for arts, etc.—and we aimed to distribute those pins fairly and evenly from the San Bernardino mountains to the shining sea.
I did due diligence – financial assessments and site visits – on every organization that received a grant. We gave project but not general operating support. And we considered ourselves partners with the groups we funded.
And that’s how we did it.
This was what we called our strategy if someone had asked us that question, which really no one ever did. Far more frequently, what people wanted to know was “why should I give to a women’s foundation?”
Why I could talk about passionately:
– Because the status of women is a barometer of equality in any society
–Because if women flex our giving muscles to demand that solutions have a gender lens we will develop better solutions
– Because women are the backbone of financial decisions in most families and communities
– Because well-educated women give a lot more of their joint wealth to their husbands’ alma maters than they do their own
– Because sisters are doin’ it for ourselves.
The list went on and on.
At the core of the answers to “why?” was a belief that women didn’t want to be saved. Women wanted tools to make good decisions for themselves and their families. Women wanted the opportunity for hard work to result in something more than 63 cents on the dollar.
And that belief saved us from ourselves. It put us in partnership with the (mostly) women’s organizations we funded. Over the years, those partner nonprofits joined our grantmaking committee and our board of directors. They challenged our approach—why not general operating support? They challenged our funding partners—can Virginia Slims buy a table at an event? Uh, no. Their staff members wrote checks contributing their hard-earned dollars to the Women’s Foundation* because they felt like we were all part of the movement. And they helped us to understand how to prioritize “solutions” by telling us which ones mattered most in which communities, which ones were dead wrong in others, and how to add ones we’d never thought of ourselves.
We practiced an early form, I think, of what Peggy Saika recently called “democratic philanthropy.” Now not every foundation is willing or able to be as fully participatory, but it makes a huge difference if you can be. I learned, in those early years, that folks did not take kindly to the notion that their communities or their lives were problems to be solved. By starting from a place where we stated our “why” values and listened to theirs, we found we were in alignment. And that alignment allowed us to be on the same side of the table in determining “how.” And even working through massive disagreements on “how.” But that’s what partnerships are about.
In short, we found that good strategy starts with listening. And not just sporadic listening, but listening that is built into the processes of our grantmaking. If we understand how our grantees see the world, it makes us smarter, better partners.
* I am pleased to say that the Women’s Foundation of California has come a long way since my early days of strategy development at the Los Angeles Women’s Foundation 24 years ago. The Women’s Foundation of California is one of the most thoughtful, grassroots and policy oriented foundations I know and I owe them so much for helping me learn what I know about philanthropy and social change.