Thursday, June 23, 2011 - 9:00am
posted by
Katie Hawkes,

Volunteer Services Coordinator
St. Vincent de Paul

Fact: In the Political Views section of my Facebook profile, it says, "Idealist. Group Hugs. Love."
Other fact: It's very, very true.

There's no way around it — I, Katie Elizabeth Hawkes, am an idealist through and through. I have a hard time assuming the worst about anyone, and I have difficulty comprehending why there isn't a political party I can subscribe to called "Sharing and Caring" or "Everyone Just Hold Hands and Sing." I once tried to explain to an economics major why, logically, we could just print more money to give to all the people in need without messing up the economy, simply by choosing not to change the value of the dollar.

That didn't go over so well.

And, OK, I'm not truly that naive. As I become increasingly involved in the nonprofit sector, I've engaged in conversations with a few critics along the way about how much good all these organizations actually accomplish. And each time, the little starry-eyed hippie inside me wanted to hold my ground and proclaim the beauty of all things serviceable in the world.

However, it's a fact that not every do-gooder cause I come across is actually accomplishing what it claims. Business is business, nonprofit or otherwise. There are funds to be managed, overheads to maintain, and a quota to fill. And just like any other business, there are successes, and there are failures. There is honesty, and there is dishonesty. There are good years, and there are rough patches.

But rather than turning this into a discussion on how to successfully evaluate which organizations most deserve your time and money, I want to focus on one other little aspect that makes all the difference to me. That element is the spirit of volunteerism — what we, as participants in these causes, gain from our endeavors. It is, of course, wonderful to know that the food you are packing is truly filling hungry bellies, and that the spare change you're donating doesn't all end up in an Executive Director's checking account.

The fact is, you don't always have a way of ultimately knowing where your efforts will end up. But should we choose to assume the worst when we have the option of assuming the best?

We can't get caught up in being so overly critical that we fail to overlook what we are personally gaining simply by the act of giving. For example, say a mother takes her five-year-old son to a service project. Is someone so young actually learning anything from the experience? Does he really comprehend what hunger or suffering means? Probably not. But even if that youngster won't be able to quote statistics from a few annual reports somewhere down the line, he will remember that he served. And ideally, it will be part of his character and inspire him to make the world better, even in little ways.

Call it blind optimism, if you will. I'm not saying you should go throw your money and time around willy nilly. But maybe in a world with so much antagonism flooding our vision, a pair of rose-colored glasses and a heart full of good intentions aren't the worst things we can hold on to.


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Comments

Katie,
I enjoyed reading your blog! To be honest, I don't think I can say I'm as optimistic as you, but I'll always remember the day a friend of mine said to me, "Your optimism makes me sick!" The personal benefits of donating time, talent, and treasure to a worthy cause are so great, though I can see how a skeptical mind can find that hard to see. Thanks for sharing with us!

You should have talked to that economics major about the problems with charity in general, especially on the international scale.

This article is pleasant to read, but you're right, you're too idealistic. Altruism isn't a real thing, and I daresay that I could prove empirically both that privatizing many industries we now call charity or welfare would yield greater results and less kumbayaing. That'd be the day.

I really enjoyed this post. I wish I was more optimistic like Katie, actually.

I disagree with Cody's assessment that there's no such thing as true altruism. I don't think cynicism and negativity accomplish much in this world. One of the things I have liked the most about being involved in the nonprofit sector is the fact that there are so many idealistic, generous, and really passionate people out there. When I go to our conferences, I always love seeing the different causes people rally around and support, usually at the expense of their own time and money, simply because they want to make the world a better place.

There are enough cynics and naysayers in this world. It's refreshing to see that there are people out there who still feel that they can make a positive difference.

Pascal, I also don't understand what the problem with that is. Katie clearly is devoted to her causes, and rather than working against her, we ought to be supporting her efforts. It seems very easy to criticize and much more time-consuming to actually commit yourself to doing good.

I know that, just in working with Katie and Travis to get this blog up, she's a very busy person who must prioritize. And yet she still takes the time to share her experiences and her wonderful optimism with all of us. Remind me again what the problem is with her having a little pride in the work she does?

Thanks for commenting Travis, I value good discussion, and katie's blogs bring it out in me, apparently.

My post can absolutely be misread, and the crucial difference here is that altruism implies selflessness or no personal gain. I think anyone who works for a nonprofit or volunteer organizations gains happiness and some form of utility from doing so, as Katie pointed out.

Does that really matter though? If benefits come from doing the work you do, who cares what your motivations are?

I don't mean to neigh say, nor do I mean to tear down charity. I just think being "selfless" is fine and dandy, but being practical is better.

Cody,

I can agree with that, to a point. You're right that no act is truly selfless. We've even had a Lodestar staff member (Laura Tan) examine whether or not volunteering was actually good for others or just good for ourselves (http://bit.ly/koGxQn).

But it does seem harsh to only look at it that way. Realistically, we do have to be practical. But I think the point that Katie was trying to make is that, sure, that's true, but let's just take a moment and be all glass-half-full about it. Sometimes it just feels nice to let the dreamer inside have its moment.

Great discussion! There probably has to be some sort of balance here, between practicality and selflessness. If people weren't selfless, they wouldn't serve those who need help. If people were only practical, no one in their right mind would start a nonprofit!

To be successful in the nonprofit world, you need a little of both.

Go get 'em, Katie! (and Cody.)

The thing that I'm confused about is why Pascal would bring up Katie's service group. It isn't mentioned in her post at all. It's interesting to note that Katie never claimed pure, unadulterated altruism in her post. She did claim, however, to be an unabashed optimist who enjoys helping people.

I consider Katie to be my friend, and so I guess I'm being a little defensive about her post - since I'm the one who asked her to write a guest blog post for this blog in the first place.

Speaking as a friend, I'm pretty sure that Katie's "service group" is nothing more than some friends getting together and trying to do some good in the world. They aren't an official organization with 501(c)3 status. They don't get paid. They just like helping people. And, since she's the one who organized the group, it only makes sense that it would be named after her. Plus, without her name, the acronym wouldn't really work. In fact, the facebook group she created says it all. She writes:

"It's pretty simple, really: I'm kind of addicted to finding/planning service projects, and I wanted an easy way to recruit people to things. So, join and I'll let y'all know when I plan stuff!"

I guess I just don't see, in the final analysis, why anyone would care what her group of friends calls themselves when they're out doing good and serving others.

Code-ster,

"the crucial difference here is that altruism implies selflessness or no personal gain"

Obviously that argument is moot since Katie is advocating non-profits, not perfect selflessness. No one is really participating in an argument with you that utility doesn't exist--clearly Katie does gain satisfaction from helping others. Are you just looking for a place to conspicuously post your econ knowledge?

Non-profits are not government institutions, btw, they are already privatized, they just plough back the profits. If you are arguing privatization then you are actually supporting Katie's cause, since non-profits are privatized endeavors.

PS "neigh" say is for horses.

Kayla, it's not a problem. I was agreeing with Cody about the fact that nothing is truly altruistic and I understand how my comment might have been perceived as antagonistic. It's great that Katie seems to enjoy service and volunteering, but it's unrealistic to claim that it's all about selfless giving because it isn't. (And I can say that with confidence as someone who does volunteer.)

Volunteerism does not equate with altruism.

I've got to say, when I volunteer my time, I can't help but ask myself, "what's in it for me?" Not because I'm selfish or because I'm only doing it for personal gain, but because I know that if I'm able to do something for someone else that's going to make me a better person, teach me a lesson, or improve on my skills I'm going to do a better job at it, thus helping that person or cause even more.
I'm not talking about personal benefits like winning humanitarian of the year or a scholarship for racking up some huge number of service hours - these things are secondary. I'm talking about the benefit of looking into the eyes of struggling single mother and seeing a glimpse of hope and tears of gratitude because you brought her a food box that will feed her family for a week. Or the benefit of receiving a thank you letter written in crayon from a child of a poverty stricken family for bringing gifts and a turkey dinner for a Christmas they otherwise would not have had. These experiences make you want to do more with what you have, whether time or money, and also fill you with compassion and understanding for our fellow man. These kinds of benefits are so great because they make us better people and in turn make us want to do more to change the world, bringing us back full circle. And if we're looking at things from the glass-half-full perspective, we'll act on these feelings and continue to do more.

Right and I recognize that. You claimed, in response to Cody's comment, that Katie was proof that altruism is a real thing. I disagree and her service group is my supporting example. It's not a dig at Katie, you, or volunteering. I just don't believe in altruism.

Thanks, Sarah, I completely agree with your assessment.

There is something to gain from service work, even if it's on a spiritual level and, therefore, it's not altruistic. I suppose my argument is more about semantics than whether or not volunteering is a good thing.

Wow I agree with Kayla - check out the discussion! I will only chime in to tell Pascal that there is nothing wrong with disagreeing with my service group, thats ur opinion and u have a right to it, and since you are obviously someone who knows me in real life, I wish u felt comfortable enough to talk to me in person. I could explain to you why I named the group the way I did and there would be no need for nicknames in an open, honest discussion. You know where to find me! Thanks for all the comments everyone!

Katie, after reading your blog I can see why you are involved in the nonprofit sector. You have a, “the glass is half-full” idealism. I love it! I think most of the people working in the nonprofit sector must be upbeat idealists in order to try and make things better in the world. We need more of those types of people to make changes for the good. You make a good point with informing us that a nonprofit is a business. And as a business money and time has to be used to run the business to accomplish the goals they have set out to do. Since humans run these nonprofits things don’t always go the way they should. As an optimist you can see that it’s better to pick up the good pieces and run with it rather than focusing on the bad. Keep up your good work both in the work you do and the inspiration you bring through spreading a little optimism!

Katie, why do you see my comment as a personal attack? Again, I have absolutey no problem with you or your service group. If you read on, you'll see that I explicitly stated I used the fact that your group was named after you as an example to support the claim that altruism doesn't exist. Just because it's not altruistic doesn't mean it's a bad thing. If you can't accept the fact that everyone who reads and comments on what you write isn't going to agree with you (even though my disagreement was with Kayla), maybe you shouldn't publish your writing in public forums.

I also don't understand why you think we know each other. We don't. I Googled your name to see if you had written anything else and that led me to your Huffington Post profile, which led me to your Twitter and blogs. It took all of 30 seconds. Hello, my name is Pascal and I don't believe in altruism.

Pascal, it's perfectly fine to disagree with me (I even encourage it), or with Katie for that matter. But I don't believe she reacted as though you were attacking her nor did she take any measures to disprove you. I don't understand how it went from her acknowledging your opinion and respecting that to you claiming that she can't even accept the fact that other people may disagree with her. She showed absolutely no indication of having such feelings in her simple response.

I think this is a point when we can all agree (as we all seem to have already done) that we all approach volunteering and working within the sector with a certain amount of personal advancement/interest.

I find it extremely interesting that this post has had more misunderstanding and controversy than any of our other ones. It probably has the LEAST controversial content of anything we've ever published on this blog. I mean, really, what's controversial about being an optimist and wanting to view things through rose-colored glasses? We've tackled much more controversial topics. From a purely psychological / sociological perspective, I find this comment thread to be absolutely fascinating.

Why is it that when someone declares their idealistic conviction to be an optimist that people feel a need to play devil's advocate? Why do the Pollyannas of this world have so many people trying to bring them down? Is optimism really so threatening?

What is it about the human condition that makes some of us (including myself, I am ashamed to admit) want to doubt the purity of other people's motives from time to time? What is the benefit of cynicism to anyone, least of all the cynic? The fruits of cynicism seem to be nothing but bitterness and social isolation. It certainly isn't the best way to make friends or influence people.

For my part, I hope that at some point in your life, Pascal, you discover that altruism really does exist. It doesn't have to be perfectly pure to be real. There is probably no such thing as a 100% pure motive, because we're all human and have multiple motivations for everything we do. But, isn't the motivation less important than the impact? No-one can judge anyone else's motives, anyway, since none of us are mind-readers. So I hope we can all learn to give each other the benefit of the doubt, be a little more trusting, a little more kind, and a little more understanding.

Kayla- I don't feel misrepresented by you, but thanks for being the peacemaker. I do feel attacked in this forum, about my opinion, which, as I said, has little to do with volunteering. Why is it considered so bad/ sad/ negative that I don't believe real altruism exists? Aren't we just disagreeing about what to call charity and service work?

Travis, et al.- I assure you I'm not some brooding, depressed guy sitting around thinking about how much I hate kittens and the various ways I can cut optimists down. Do I believe in the inherent goodness of people? Of course I do. Do I believe great things can be accomplished by committing some time and love to a cause? Of course I do. I just don't think we should call it altruism. Is this a stupid, off topic argument that has spiraled out of control? Of course it is.

Taylor,

Sorry for my misspelling, that was absolutely relevant to the discussion.

And no, I'm not looking for a place to drop my econ knowledge, I'm reading a post and voicing my thoughts.

I'll rephrase as well, when I refer to privatizing, I meant for profit. I think giving incentives like profit and personal gain to helping the needy means more needy will be helped. Yes, there are tax breaks, no, that's not enough.

It doesn't matter however. I was just forum posting while bored at work.

Katie,

I have to say that I really enjoyed your post, its nice to know that other optimists are out there. I can’t say that I am always optimistic, but even traits of idealism can be a difficult quality for others to appreciate (and for people to possess). I feel blessed to be studying a sector with such a rich culture of people in its history that too have been criticized for their ‘starry-eyed’ ways. As a student, it’s nice to know that I’ll be among great people when I enter the sector.

Best,

Victoria Yerkovich

I'm not anti-non-profit as a whole, but I think that they have to be very careful. Money is a huge resource for any non-profit and unfortunately many non-profits are run by idealists who don't know how to maximize the return on a dollar. I think the best non-profits are the ones that have transitioned from being wholly idealist run, to being run like a business (but without losing sight of their vision/mission). Because the goal of a non-profit should not be to make money, but to maximize how they use the money that they receive to do the most good.

I like you Katie. You brought out some good points. I agree with you about the concept of giving.
"The fact is, you don't always have a way of ultimately knowing where your efforts will end up. But should we choose to assume the worst when we have the option of assuming the best?" This is so true.
For me, when I give I always assume that it did somebody good. I did my part and my reward is feeling happy to have helped. And I am not going to ruin that by thinking that maybe my "help" didn't really help anybody. This is also a good practice to do: When you are giving, think that you are actually not giving to the foundation, organization, church or even to a specific individual...you are giving to God. With this in your mind, it won't matter if the help you gave was misused.

I really enjoyed reading your article Katie and consider myself to be an idealist as well. I love giving people the benefit of the doubt and not assuming everyone out there is selfish. I love to volunteer and give my service as much as I can to as many different people.I believe it's people who are optimistic and willing to serve and start up non-profits, is what really keeps our economy going and smiles on peoples faces. Without non-profit business such as shelters, and soup kitchens, our streets would be filled with more crime, violence, casualties, and the poor wondering. It is crucial to have these organizations run for the right reasons though and to have trustworthy individuals running the programs and staying true to their mission.

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