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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

The Caveat of Idealism: Optimism and Doing Good in the Nonprofit Sector

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.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog