Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's Not About You

Recently, I was reading a new study on "Virtual Volunteering" (which I mistakenly thought was about volunteer opportunities in Second Life) for Haitian relief efforts. This passage jumped out at me:
"For our purposes, virtual volunteering is understood by the volunteer herself or himself as helpful to those most directly affected by the events surrounding a crisis or those in need of volunteer assistance. Some observers may not agree that a specific form of volunteerism is useful or efficacious. For example, a volunteer who prays two hours a day for the safety of Haitians rendered homeless by earthquake damage believes she is helping, even though many third-party observers might doubt the utility of her actions." [Emphasis mine]
Say what?

The study was released in conjunction with the College of Charleston and Hope +, a social networking site where "[y]ou can use your social network to volunteer with your friends, support organizations and projects around the world, or start your own." The most important part of Hope +, they say, is you:
"HOPE+ is all about giving YOU and millions of others like YOU a way to change the world...We want to know what inspires YOU. Ultimately, we want to use HOPE+ to help turn your hopes and dreams into real change on the ground."
Needless to say, this language makes me very, very uncomfortable. The emphasis in this is on the giver, the volunteer, the donor, not the recipient.  For the Hope + virtual volunteer (which is actually someone who volunteers remotely, not a digital avatar) it doesn't matter what he or she is doing, even if it is praying, as long as the volunteer feels like he or she is making a difference.

Social networking sites like Hope + help connect individuals to create change. At their best, these sites can leverage action and donations for good causes, like Kiva does for microfinance institutions across the world. At their worst, the sites can shift accountability from the people needing help to the people doing the helping. If you visit the "Virtual Volunteer" section at Can-Do, one of Hope +'s partners, you will find a message board at the bottom of the page full of people asking how to get down to Haiti to help. Anyone who does even a little bit of research on Haitian relief will know that this is not a good idea. These types of forums build on the assumption that donors and volunteers know best and let people think of their own projects, instead of asking what is best for the recipients.

Besides encouraging little to no critical thought about donations, mobilizing social networking (or text donations) to fundraise or leverage free labor can also create too much of a focus on engaging the donor or volunteer rather than serving the organization's constituents. Dan Morrison, CEO of Citizen Effect, wrote a guest piece for Social Citizens defending "slacktivism"--the idea that we can make a difference by not doing a whole lot, like texting for Haitian relief. He says that instead of mobilizing a slacktivist to do more, we should be finding easier ways for him or her to give.

While I agree that social media/networking is a good tool to use to get people more involved more easily--whether that be through microdonations or virtual volunteering--it's also important to remember what Uncle Ben told Peter Parker: "With great power comes great responsibility." Texting donations or pointing people towards easily-done volunteer opportunities is great, as long as those donations go to good organizations and those volunteer opportunities actually benefit the people that need help. The focus should not be on how to get more out of people, but how to put untapped resources to better use. Organizations like Hope + and Citizen Effect put too much emphasis on the giver and not enough on the receiver.

So when volunteering or giving, remember: It's not about you. If you want something more ego-centric, try blogging.

Thanks to Adam for sending me the slacktivism article.

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