Philanthropy, Attention, and Intention

Would you save the world if you couldn’t tell anyone?

Since embarking on this blog adventure and signing up with Twitter in November, I’ve noticed a trend amongst a good chunk of the In Real Life friends, tweeps, and bloggers I follow online. For the most part, they’re philanthropists. Many of my friends’ and tweeps’ bios, statuses, links and tweets are in a significant part philanthropic in nature. Some speak to a concern for social justice. Some to eradicating global hunger/poverty/illiteracy/inequality. Some to political, environmental, health, or educational issues. Some simply say they want to “save the world”.

Most tweet-ups I have been to have had a philanthropic aspect as well as a networking one. Donations are collected for the Vancouver Food Bank, or organizations such as the Loving Spoonful. An obvious example that comes to mind is YVR Twestival 2011, which raised funds for the incredibly deserving Beauty Night Society.

Another common trait of the folk in my online social world is that we like attention. Before you raise your hackles or your eyebrows or your typing hands to protest, think about it. We do. Why else would we blog? Why else would we put our thoughts and opinions and actions on a public forum like Twitter (which is, essentially, a kind of mini-blog) or on a friend network like Facebook?  Whether it’s to promote good causes, meet new people, or stir up controversy, we are people who want to be taken notice of. This is not a judgment. This, I believe, is simply a fact. I am, for one, completely guilty of this (see my post about Internet Fatigue if you want further proof).

Where a drive for philanthropy meets a drive for attention is a murky, not-so-fun-to-look-at area that brings up questions of intention. What is our purpose when we blog or tweet about the philanthropic things we do, about our opinions on recycling, about the gala or launch party for a non-profit group we attended that was complete with a who’s-who of Vancouver’s finest networkers and the flyest DJs? Is our intention about supporting this cause or that one, encouraging others to support this or that cause, or simply wanting other people to know about our cause-supporting ways?

Which brings me to my question for this post: would you, if given the opportunity, save the world, even if the trade-off was that for some reason you could not tell a single soul? When I first posed this question to myself I quickly said “Of course.” But then I thought about it. I thought about what I would be missing if I couldn’t advertise my good deeds. I thought about how trendy it is to be a philanthropist nowadays, especially in Vancouver. We have our very own “problem spot”, the Downtown East Side, and many of us pay lip service to the amazing people who dedicate their time and energy to improving quality of life there, while being able to, for the most part, live and work safely in gentrified areas ourselves.

I also find myself wondering about the intentions behind participation in recent breast and prostate cancer “awareness” campaigns. Recently, breast cancer awareness campaigns have involved saucy internet memes like posting your bra colour as your Facebook status, or the latest, posting a status that makes it sound as though you’re pregnant. To me, these campaigns make breast cancer a “sexy” issue but I do not recall that many of my friends who participated in these memes (or myself) have actually have turned their “awareness-raising” saucy posts into real research-funding donation dollars. Movember, a yearly campaign in which men grow mustaches during the month of November to raise money for men’s health issues, is similarly “sexy”. I remember once getting quite indignant about young men I knew who were planning to visually participate in Movember, i.e. grow the ‘stache, but who had absolutely no intentions of going to the trouble of raising any money. Essentially, there now exists a desire to visibly support a cause without tangibly supporting it with money or effort. The act of “raising awareness” may be a philanthropic act, but the intention behind it is not.

Mustached man by Sonja Kresowaty

Unfortunately, with so many worthy causes in the world, publicity is a necessity for groups hoping for access to the limited public and private donation dollars available. Some campaigns, like Movember, or organizations that hold bitchin’ parties to raise funds, have tapped into the fact that true charity, free of any self-serving intentions, is hard to come by, and have adjusted their fundraising strategies accordingly.

And I say good on them. They’ve realized that even in the world of charity you can’t get something for nothing. This isn’t their fault. It’s ours. We expect to give and take, instead of just to give.

If I want evidence for this I need not look any farther than my  own online actions. If I believe in one cause or other, and especially if I make any tangible efforts in support of this cause, you can bet your boots I’ll tweet about it or mention it on Facebook or in this blog.  A prime example is my blog post about my “Five for Five” Project. I didn’t tell anyone I was going to do it and afterwords I could have kept the experience to myself. But I shared it instead. And the comments and support I received in return buoyed my spirits and made me feel wonderful. I gave, and my intentions were good, but I also gained immensely.

Does my little rant mean I think people should stop telling us about their philanthropy? No. At the end of the day, support for a philanthropic or other world-saving cause is support. Whether this support is financial, effortful, or simply awareness-raising, many worthy causes benefit when people draw attention to the good they’re doing. Maybe all of us tweeting and posting our good deeds is a kind of positive peer pressure– “Hey everyone! All of us cool kids are being good people and giving/volunteering/recycling! You should too!”. Very good things do not always require completely pure intentions. The result is still many people doing good things. And talking about it. And maybe good deserves a little reward: a swanky party, supportive comments, the personal gratification of knowing that the people whose opinions matter to you know that you are trying to be a good person.

But I do hope, now that the internet has given us so many tools to discover causes, talk about them, and support them, that we would continue to do good in our lives and in others’ even if there was no party, no mustache, no saucy meme, no attention. That we would continue to save the world, each in our own way, even if we could never take credit for it.

Our actions, regardless of intent, have the power to do much good for others. But I think our intentions, and our ability to be honest with ourselves about them, do a lot of good for us, and the kind of people we want to be. The more I analyze my own intentions, the more I understand the causes I truly do believe in. These are the ones I would fight for even if no one was looking.

3 thoughts on “Philanthropy, Attention, and Intention

  1. There’s a certain affirmation that comes from publishing, even online, as well as from the attention is receives. I love it when I post something that’s in line with someone else’s perspective or view because it keeps me going and if people believe in the same cause as me, I feel like there’s some extra momentum.

    There have been times I’ve made asks without really having taken the cause on as my personal mission and it doesn’t feel very good at all…

  2. I love it too. It’s helpful for me when people believe in what I believe in, and I think the word “momentum” really does hit the nail on the head in terms of how useful this affirmation and support from others is.

    But every once in a while I do take a look at some of my motives, and they aren’t always what I wish they were. I acknowledge this is the case for me, and I suppose this is just one of those things that are more about the struggle than actually achieving a “pure” intention. I can’t always help my intentions, or that I enjoy receiving positive attention when I do good things. But I can help my actions and I hope for the most part, if I’m not always good, I’m at least doing no harm.

  3. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “pure” intention. I think every intention, even good deeds, are at least a little corrupted by our human natures (vanity, smugness, hope for reward, pride, etc). This is not a reason to stop philanthropy. It is a reason for humility though. Recognizing that even our “virtuous actions are not pure, or put another way, that we are not and can never be “pure” is more realistic, practical, and in the end more effective. Making your baser motivations (like vanity for example) serve some greater or more beneficial cause is the best we can do. And that’s pretty good.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s