“I work hard for… myself.”  – Patti LaBelle

Last Wednesday, a friend invited me to attend a Treehouse fundraiser lunch in downtown Seattle. I welcomed the opportunity to be a part of this organization’s heroic work supporting foster children.  Life is hard enough with a home and family; it was inspiring to see so many people come out in support of children in need.

At the lunch, American singer and foster parent Patti LaBelle was a special guest.  Soon into her script she announced: “I work hard for (…long pause…) myself.”  She explained (with demonstrative flair) that some people say that they work hard against cancer or to fight poverty, but that is not their full story.  She works hard on behalf of foster kids because of the rewards (the love) that she gained in return.  It isn’t as much about them as it is about her, she suggested.  I appreciated her point.

We don’t think enough in the non-profit sector about the motivations that drive us to get involved with the issues we care about.  We certainly don’t tend to talk about them publicly.  Just a few days before the Treehouse lunch, I was speaking with the Executive Director of Terrawatu, a locally-driven project in Tanzania that brings together indigenous communities and the modern world.  I was describing a local poverty-related project, and she asked: “What is their motivation?”  Why are they doing this work?  It was an excellent question that I was unable to adequately answer.

The quick and satisfying answer is that they—we—are doing the work because feels good to help someone in need.  For many people, that is truly why they get involved with the causes that they do.  But there are other motivations that can drive our engagement with poverty alleviation and social change.  It is important to consider them honestly because our motivations become realized in our outcomes.

There seem to be two main types of motivation: Connection and Standing.

CONNECTION. Simply put, we want to be a part of a community. As much as I might be drawn to the regular clucking of my Tweetdeck, no social media platform replaces the human connection achieved through a community of individuals working together for a good cause.  We receive a rush of adrenaline that comes from a sense of membership in something bigger than ourselves.  We work for, or volunteer with, international NGOs because we want to be a part of the lives of people we admire (or possibly think we can save) elsewhere in the world.

STANDING. Patti LaBelle brought up the other reason we get involved: because it helps ourselves.  The self-service side of NGO motivation is under-discussed because we are not supposed to admit that we are strengthening our own position or state of being by helping others.  Issues of power and money are swept under the rug as if they are negative by definition.  By avoiding the conversation, however, we are clouding our actions with unspoken limitations, which in the end will distort the outcomes that we are trying to achieve.  Three examples come to mind:

  • Money: A common question from people starting non-profits is: “How soon until I can draw a paycheck?”  A quick way to discredit an NGO leader is to state that he or she is doing it for the money, which, if true, would make me wonder why that NGO leader stays in this business.  But money is neutral, and the desire to earn a livable salary is not something slanderous.  Local leaders should earn a livelihood that allows them to serve others without worry about their own well-being.  Outside partners should likewise be compensated if possible and if (big if here) the local population being served sees value in their service.  Salaries are much like the American stock market—they can sway the focus to short term gains or be used to build long term capacity.
  • Power:  Few people admit to wanting to have dominion over others, but the reality of cross-cultural poverty alleviation is that it gives us power over communities of people living elsewhere in the world.  I participated in a career panel with someone working for USAID, and he took create pride in relaying how important it was that he traveled two out of four weeks a month in order to keep tabs on the locals.  It gave him power.  We all gain power when we have a say in the raising or spending of money used by someone else.  But like money, power is neutral.  We can also use our power to redirect how our communities engage in international partnerships.  Local leaders create projects to serve their communities, and by doing so, they expand their own stature.  The result of empowering people is that they have power, I hope.
  • Redress: A large number of people throw themselves into this work in order to honor the death or struggle of a loved one.  They are making up for mistakes made earlier in their lives or careers or trying to fix something that disadvantaged someone they know.  Making things right is so often a very heartfelt motivator—the emotion can be so pure in intent.

Any of these motivators can undermine collective progress—a community can get stagnant or inward-looking.  Making money, power, or redress our primary motivators can lead to short term results disjointed from the actual needs of the people that we are serving.  Too much “because I just want to help” can leave an organization without practical skills.  But in reality, we do this work because of a complicated mix of motivations that evolve over time.  Let’s talk honestly locally and with our international partners about what motivates us and them so that we can clear the air of unspoken concerns and be transparent in shaping programs that achieve outcomes that best help them and not just ourselves.

On what motivates philanthropists, I recently appreciated a posting by Parag Gupta on the Skoll Foundation’s Social Edge Blog.  He describes three types of giving in what he calls ‘Realphilanthropik’: (1) Ego philanthropy driven by the social gain achieved through having your name attached to big gifts, (2) ‘Bang for Buck’ philanthropy guided by getting the most value for your money, and (3) Game-changing philanthropy aimed at changing the landscape in which a problem exists.  More on philanthropy in a future post!

2 responses to “Motivations

  1. Michael Kischner

    On the PBS Newshour, we just watched a report on microlending for commercial profit and how it is sadly changing the face of the kind of the original not-for-profit microlending. Different motives certainly do lead to different outcomes! I know, though, that you are talking about the motives that can be hidden even from ourselves.

  2. Proud American

    As Michael noted (see above comment), yes, there are different motives for helping others. I would first like to note that microlending is different than giving a donation. Putting this aside, I don’t think it matters why someone donates time or money. The end result is the same. It helps those in need. Whether an individual affects social change with a contribution of finances or personal time, does the reason behind it really matter? Being a philanthropist or seeking a tax deduction produce identical results. No matter what the label is, the act of giving still contributes to positive outcomes for those who are less fortunate.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s