In a recent New York TImes article by David Brooks, “The Rugged Altruists“, he describes a few examples of aid workers abroad and the values they share—the willingness to go to new and unfamiliar places, to listen and to serve, and humility.
Many Americans go to the developing world to serve others. A smaller percentage actually end up being useful. Those that do have often climbed a moral ladder. They start out with certain virtues but then develop more tenacious ones.
The examples are inspiring as well as sobering.
Interestingly, his article relates to another one I read yesterday—Dan Pallotta’s new post on the Harvard Business Review, entitled “Sacrifice is Overrated“. Pallotta is the author of Uncharitable, in which he argues that the non-profit industry is crippled by the rules that govern it, preventing organizations from doing the scale of good they could if they were as free as businesses to do so. I heard him speak earlier this year and am a big fan of his arguments. I think they’re right on target in a reassessment of the “non-profit” sector which is eternally starving for support and hindered by law and public opinion from making the kinds of strides and impact that bring success and praise to businesses.
In this blog post, he talks—as he does in his book—about the dangers of a whole society believing that it is right for those who do good to sacrifice financially to do so. Specifically, he reacts to a colleague’s enthusiastic embrace of Warren Buffet and others who have publicly embraced financial sacrifice for the greater good. While he doesn’t take issue with their merits, he argues for the need for us as a society to give up our deeply entrenched and harmful views that mixing social impact and profit is immoral, and that financial sacrifice is the only meaningful sacrifice we recognize.
To deny the masses of suffering human beings the talents of people who could greatly help them — and to deny it because of a blanket opposition to paying valuable people the significant money they might be worth to do it — is to put our fantasies of the selfless society we wish we lived in ahead of the life and death situations of those who suffer. Do we really think it is of some comfort to the mother whose child just died of starvation to know that at least no one made much money in the failed effort to save her son?
Thomas Merton’s abbey at Gethsemane sells cheese, and in the 160 years since it was founded it has grown from 44 monks to precisely 65. We have an inadequate supply of saints. If it is saints that the suffering masses of the world have to wait on, we are sentencing them to death.
In a third coincidence related to another piece of content in yesterday’s news-browsing, as I was looking back for the tweet that sent me to Brooks’ article yesterday, I came across a few negative reactions to the piece. One of which came from Dayo Olopade, whom I had just seen in a CNN article and video, and which I was just about to post here. Her tweet said this:
Olopade is a Nigerian-American journalist and author of forthcoming book The Bright Continent, about how “advanced economies can learn a thing or two from Africa’s innovative spirit.” Her tweet speaks to the intense dynamics that exist in the field of development—those we all need to understand and work with so that we’re genuinely helping, bridging gaps, enabling people and serving the purpose, not just treating it superficially.
I can see how Olopade could be frustrated, and I don’t know about Brooks, but he may have only had time or access to talk with aid workers. In any case, reading those two opposing views brings up a lesson we learn time and time again: there’s always another side. As designers, development workers or in any other field, and whether or not we can satisfy it in the end, we’re better off considering that other side, listening to it and doing whatever we can to address it from the start.
(tipped to this article by @acumenfund)