The Celebration of Insignificant Self Denial – Our Hero Complex

“For less than the price of a cup of coffee each week” or “for less than a dollar a day”, you can… “ Sponsor a child”, “Help someone start a business”, “Give someone clean water”, “change the world”, “Be a hero …”!

Can we stop for a minute and think about this? Can I call bull@#$% on this. Our cultural and entertainment narratives are quite clear that hero’s overcome adversity to succeed. Adversity can take many forms, but I would like to argue that it has yet to take the form of a Grande Latte not purchased or consumed. If we are honest with ourselves most of us are still drinking that latte after we’ve donated it anyway.

I have been bothered by this marketing ploy to raise donations for a long time. How dare we offer hero status to ourselves, the most privileged and wealthy generation of people the world has ever seen, for giving up a small insignificant luxury item, or for simply giving the equivalent to charity while drinking one of those cups of coffee.

My problem is not with the people who give, with the monthly subscription method of giving, or even with the amount of money involved. It is with those of us that are trying to inspire those people to give. Why do we play along with, pander to and outright promote the narcissism of this idea that you are a hero for “sacrificing” insignificant amounts of money to “change the world”.  We are offering people a way to feel that they have done their part to fix local and global issues that weigh on their conscience without them really having to be uncomfortable in anyway.

Each non-profit, NGO and humanitarian organization wants people to actively engage with their cause, to really get behind their work and contribute in significant ways. But at the same time these organizations offer their audiences and donors a convenient, neatly wrapped “disengagement package”. A small, relatively painless monthly donation that offers donors the satisfaction that they have done their part and can file that global, or local issue into the solved folder and free their conscious  to move on to happier things. Again my problem is not with the monthly giving plan but with  how it is marketed. I don’t like to see these subscriptions marketed to make the donor a world changer, or that the money donated is responsible for change in the world.

We need to stop making our audience the hero’s of our organizational story. We need to be telling deeper stronger stories about the people that we are helping and how they are rising to the challenge and overcoming obstacles to create a better life for themselves. We need to offer our audience a deeper narrative that addresses the complexity of the issues on the ground and asks them to engage mentally as well as financially.

Because honestly, that $30 a month does not have the power to transform lives and improve peoples situation on it’s own. It how those people take advantage of the  opportunities provided by the $30 a month, and the hard work required to change that $30 opportunity into a better life that we need to celebrate.

We need to celebrate the successful change in people’s lives, the changes that result from effort, commitment and work ethic, not the self-denial of a luxury beverage.

When we celebrate insignificant self-denial it sends another message as well. By promoting this message we trivialize the challenges that people around the world face due to injustice, indifference, and lack of opportunities. We ignore the fact that those of us living in western or more developed countries that are privileged enough to even be engaging in this conversation have quite honestly won the birth lottery. We were born into countries and situations that gave us ample opportunities to succeed and in turn opportunities to reach out and help those less fortunate than ourselves.

It is quite easy to look at places in the world where opportunities are limited and simplify the problems they face based on our access to resources. I know I am guilty of this much more than I would like to admit. I often find myself thinking “Why don’t they just do…x or y, it’s simple”

The problem with this thinking and with trivializing these challenges is it begins to cloud our perception of the people we are trying to help. Because we don’t understand the dynamics of the situations and culture that other people are facing it becomes easy to see them as something they are not. Lazy, stupid, uneducated, lacking ambition, are all things that have come into my mind when I start to over simplify the situation.

The more we simplify these situations into something that $30 a month can solve the more we devalue the people who are actually involved. It becomes throwing money at a problem to make it go away rather than engaging the dialogue of what do the people in this situation need in order to succeed.

As Non-profits and humanitarian organizations we need to move away from messages that celebrate insignificant self-denial and take away the human value from the people we are try to help. We need to celebrate the ability of each person to have a positive impact on their own situation. We need to celebrate the fact that they are able to take advantage of opportunities presented to them and the fact that their situation is improving.

We should always endeavor to add to the perceived value of each person we work with as we communicate with donors, sponsors, volunteers, and casual observers. The perception we create of that person is often the first impression of that individual that our audience will receive, it is our responsibility to paint a picture of a hero working to overcome adversity, rather than a helpless soul in need of aid.

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