As an undergrad, I took an (amazing) class on Sudan and human rights, where we read an enlightening book: Emma’s War by Deborah Scroggins. Emma McCune is a British aid worker who goes to Sudan in love with the romantic, idealistic desire to help others and also immerse herself in an exotic adventure. She fell in love with the Sudanese, quite literally, and married rebel leader Riek Machar, a commander within the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The book tells of her demise.

As I was writing about this book for class, it really made me wonder: does it matter what our motivation is for donating and doing good? It’s a question I think about to this day. A lot of people donate or volunteer because it makes them feel good. Yes, it gives you a fuzzy feeling inside to volunteer and know you’re helping others. But…is that sufficient motivation, or is it a truly flawed approach?

I recently had this conversation with Vicki Boykis over Twitter, and she wrote a thought-provoking post with her opinions. She asked: How much does the motivation behind your work or charity matter, compared to the results? If the results are positive, does it matter why you decided to donate to Kiva, for example?

I used to not know. But over time, I’ve grown to realize we cannot truly ‘do good’ if we simply want to feel good inside or ‘look cool’ to others. The “virtue of selfishness” ultimately can harm individuals. One example is TOMS Shoes: Buying TOMS shoes to ‘look cool’ is not an effective tactic. Many have written about how their model of distributing free shoes can actually undermine the local economy; a better approach would be to at least manufacture or purchase the shoes locally. Besides this, simply giving things to poor people is not the best approach to development. Poverty is not just the lack of shoes; it goes far deeper than that. Thousands of people supported TOMS on their “Day Without Shoes” campaign; I am sure many joined because it seemed like a ‘cool’ thing to do.

We cannot donate or volunteer just to feel good about ourselves. This leads to many other flawed ‘aid’ interventions such as voluntourism or ‘slum’ tours, where rich Americans go abroad to see how the poor live in slums. It leads to schools being built, a la Greg Mortenson, which ultimately end up as empty buildings, ‘ghost’ schools when no one has bothered to properly train and pay teachers or make sure the school is what the community really needs. It leads to ‘aid’ approaches that are ultimately all about us and our desire to feel proud of what we have done to help others.

But if we want to truly change things, we have to look critically at our own motivations. Social justice will only come if we take the side of the poor and the marginalized, and if we give up any desire to feel warm and fuzzy inside. It will only come if we put aside our preconceptions of what people need and instead, genuinely ask the poor: What is it that you need, and how can we work together to help you and your community get there? It will only come if it’s no longer about us… but about them – the people we want to ultimately, help.

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In truth, examining my own motivations has left me deeply uncomfortable. Part of my drive to work on social justice initiatives and with non-profits is that it does enrich my life, and it does make me happy. Ultimately, it does make me feel good about myself – it adds value to my life, and allows me to be a human being I am proud of. Working for social change and justice aligns with my own values and makes me feel more satisfied with the person I am today.

Yet, the truth is that this work does not give me a ‘warm fuzzy feeling’ inside. Instead, I constantly feel overwhelmed, as there is so much to do, so much to change, so many initiatives worthy of supporting and working towards. I feel angry, because injustice seems pervasive and change seems to be so slow in coming. I feel frustrated, because what I can do seems like a drop in the ocean. Truth is, I’ve never felt a warm, fuzzy feeling, because I realize that even though I work towards human rights every day, there is far more to be done. We are so far from the end of poverty, rights violations, the subjugation of women and oppressed people, that I do not feel warm and fuzzy inside.

But turning the lens onto myself challenges me; it makes me think whether any of the projects I am working on come from my desires, my interest, my satisfaction – rather than directly from the needs of people we serve. And the truth is, yes, there is a lot more the organization(s) I work with can do to make their projects and programs based in the community to a much greater extent. There is a lot more we can all do to stop bringing our own biases to the table. There is a lot more we can do to simply ask the community, What is it that you need, and how can we help you get there? There is a lot more we can do to serve their needs, rather than our agendas.

So put yourself in the spotlight, uncomfortable as it may be. Examine your motivations for doing good. Because motivations are powerful, more powerful than you think. Your motivations are ultimately what will determine the tangible impact of your work on people – for better or for worse.

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