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The culture of charity: does it matter why we give?

Author: Katherine Robertson, Head of Corporate Volunteering –

Working within the social sector can be uncomfortable – especially as a privileged outsider. I have spent a lot of time questioning my motives, trying to untangle whether my choice of work was altruistic, if I was doing it for myself and how much of my ego was involved.

Reflection is critical in this field of work and motive is also important. However, what we should be questioning is impact, not intention. Good intentions do not necessarily create good results.

Like many starting out in the working world, I could have found myself a city job and spent my Fridays paying more for cocktails than some people pay their domestic workers. Instead, I felt drawn to the social sector and started a project in Alexandra, Johannesburg – called Africa Works. We were based on the outskirts of Alex, overlooking the township from the north side – just enough to see how little space there is for the estimated 350 000 people who live there.

I arrived knowing that unemployment was a problem for the 100 community members we interacted with and set about addressing this by offering revenue generating programmes that taught skills like woodwork and sewing. It was hard work with unsafe working conditions and little to no resources. Simple reality challenged us on a daily basis.

Although the work was well intentioned, I failed to ask upfront what the community wanted. This inadvertently created a dependency on the income the project generated. Africa Works was ultimately not sustainable – instead of filling one, I had created yet another gap.  I saw similar dynamics play out time and again – tourists, corporate volunteers and other well-meaning people who wanted to make a difference but committed the same mistake.

How does one actually create a meaningful difference? How do socially active individuals focus on impact and not just intention? Three pieces of advice have helped me in the latter part of my career:

  1. Use the power of local experts: Find engaged, local community members who can guide you and who know the problems you are trying to solve much better than you do. Draw up a plan and run it past them for input. Make sure your plan is addressing something that the community actually needs. If you are organising donations of physical goods, check what is needed, how it should be packaged and how it will be stored. If you are doing skills-based volunteering, ask for help in understanding all the complexities before you dive in.
  2. Prioritise impact: Focus your attention on what social outcomes are important. These are not necessarily the social outcomes you think should be achieved, but rather what the situation demands, or what people are asking for. Consider the resources and skillsets you have available. Do these factors align? If they don’t – start again and find those local experts who can get you on the right path.
  3. Just get started: Even if you are giving back for the ‘right reasons’, you could be getting it wrong. Chances are you will get much more from the experience than you will give. The Warm Glow Theory states that people feel good when they give back and are motivated more by this feeling than by the act of welfare. We should banish the idea that this is a bad thing; it just means that your giving isn’t purely selfless. In essence, do not wait for the right time or worry about your motives too much, if more people are giving back, we are all better for it.

About forgood: connects people who want to do good with over 500 registered community organisations and causes across South Africa. In addition to offering a public platform, the team builds branded, customised employee volunteering platforms for use in corporate CSI and HR initiatives. Forgood’s tech brings scale to the social sector, better bridging the gap between individuals and organisations working on the ground.


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