Jenara Nerenberg

Why We Help: A Meditation on “Giving”

There are dozens of motives for people to work in the business of development and I’ve been pondering the psychology of “giving” and what drives people to want to work in international aid, donate to charities, work for non-profits, and generally work in an environment where there is a heightened desire to help others. I majored in political theory at UC Berkeley, conjuring up ways of creating a more just world and how we should collectively govern it. For me, thinking about how to help people out of poverty has always been about justice and fairness. So what drives you?

Katherine Fulton, in a recently released TED Talk from 2007, talks about leaders a century ago who engaged in the “business of benevolence,” those who created modern Western philanthropy as we know it, in the form of foundations. Those same people are now criticized as being closed-minded, risk-averse, and slow to respond to new challenges, because of the bureaucratic evolution of those foundations and the sharp contrast of more current, cutting-edge tools of philanthropy as found on the internet. Fulton goes on to discuss the need for philanthropy to become a big, crowdsourced act, “the democratization of philanthropy” as she calls it, that we have started to see in organizations like Kiva, Spot.Us, DonorsChoose, Ideablob, and numerous others.

The phrase, “business of benevolence,” took me back to my studies in political theory, where the phrase itself sounds a bit Machiavellian. The utility of “giving” to one’s subjects, whereby giving is simply a means to achieving what you want (the maintenance of power) and not a selfless act, could be deemed as yet another motive for working in public service.

I had a Professor of Public Health Ethics who praised his students as “saints” for choosing a field that required us to be so giving and sacrificial. He went on to describe his preoccupation with “status” and the meaning of being appointed Professor and at a school as prestigious as Harvard. He was very matter of fact and was simply trying to differentiate those who choose a career that very clearly focuses on helping others from those careers where helping others is a side benefit. Now, it can be argued that most positions help people in some way, such as Professor or banker or real estate agent. But, the decision to work in development is a decision to help people (or so we assume we are helping people).

The Case Foundation put out an interesting article on the myths of working in non-profits, highlighting some of the motivations versus realities for those who work and want to work in the non-profit sector. The article argues that the same qualities exist in people who work in non-profits as in any corporation; people are not always altruistic and they absolutely have competitive, ambitious, goal-oriented, higher pay-seeking, scheming motives.

Another way of asking the question is, “What do you get back from working in development?” Hope, satisfaction, feeling morally righteous, feeling needed, and feeling important all come to mind. So it’s not a one-way interaction where people in our field just give and give. We get something back, too.

And then there are the personal reasons, which I encounter most frequently in people I meet in our field: “I was a victim of domestic violence, so I decided to be a women’s rights lawyer.” “I am a rape victim so I decided to be a counsellor in my local women’s health center.” “I grew up in a rural village where the closest school was 5 hours away, so I decided to return to my home country and start 10 schools in my region.”

There may also be those who simply find the field “interesting,” without having a deep personal experience that drove them to want to help others. But “interesting” can be found in many fields, and with higher pay.

A close friend has suffered from asthma since childhood; she’s now doing a PhD in environmental health and wants to work in health policy for minorities and marginalized families. Another friend had an allergic reaction to peanut butter while eating a dish in Nepal and responded to that experience by looking at the nutritional properties of peanut butter, identified it as a highly scalable ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) product for the country, and started the Nepal NUTrition Project to prevent malnutrition in children.

But does choosing a life and career in non-profits or development always require a personal touch of fate? I worry that that is not enough, because many will not have such experiences and hence go down other paths (which is fine, but then the pool of potential “givers,” volunteers, and social entrepreneurs is a highly volatile number). Or perhaps most people do have such experiences but respond to them differently.

What other motives exist? What drives you?