*NOTE: This is a great post from Dan Pallotta on the Harvard Business Review blog. He is an expert in nonprofit sector innovation and a pioneering social entrepreneur. He is the founder of Pallotta TeamWorks, which invented the multiday AIDSRides and Breast Cancer 3-Days. He is the president of Advertising for Humanity and the author of Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential.
Some people say — though never publicly — that the elephant in the room of the nonprofit sector is that people work in the sector because they can’t cut it in business. That’s not what this post is about.
Allow me to introduce a brand new elephant to the room: Maybe people get into the compassion business full-time not because they’re more compassionate than others but because they’re codependent. Maybe the driving force is really inverted narcissism — an unhealthy and unexamined addiction to care-taking or to self-neglect.
I grew up in the 60s. The images and words of Robert and John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were everywhere. The assassinations of those men made them even more heroic and compelling. (That’s dysfunctional right there, isn’t it?) I was swept up in their rhetoric — of possibility, of service, and of self-sacrifice.
I was also strongly influenced by my dad, a construction worker in Boston. There were tough times, especially in the winter when the ground was frozen and work was hard to come by. He identified with the downtrodden and the disadvantaged. That was his psychology, and I became loyal to it, though not consciously.
Add to those influences the fact that I was the oldest son and the oldest grandson in an Italian family. That produced an unhealthy dose of the “hero child” syndrome, as psychologists describe it, where I felt more responsibility for the world’s problems at age nine than maybe a kid ought to. I remember sitting at the family dinner table on Sundays listening to my uncles and grandfather and dad talk about all the world’s woes and quietly adding each one to my list, thinking, “OK, I have to solve that one too.”
The convergence of these conditions created something akin to a magnetic force at extremely close range, irresistibly pulling me to the nonprofit, help-others-first pole.
People have asked me over the years why I care so much more about the world than the average person seems to. I’ve often thought, “I don’t. There’s something else at work here.” As I look back on my life, there was never a point at which I said, “This is what I want to do with my life, and I’m going for it. This is what will make me happy. This is what I choose.” It was more a case of hypnotically obeying the pull of forces over which I didn’t exert much conscious influence.
In my consulting work, I see people who wear the debilitating lack of resources in their organization like a badge of honor, despite the fact that the deficiency undermines their ability to impact the community problem they are working on. I see people moving from one nonprofit to another, from one cause to another, seemingly more addicted to “the struggle” than passionate about solving any particular social ill. I see “wars among saints,” as one writer put it, in the AIDS community, the breast cancer community, the autism community, and as recently as four weeks ago, in the form of the KONY 2012 controversy. This vitriol points to something other than the solving of social problems being at the root of peoples’ motivations. I see people sacrificing their children’s quality of life as they burn themselves out doing the jobs of two or three people, for wages that don’t support the kind of life they really want. And while they lament it, they have no commitment to doing anything about it. There’s a sense of pathological contentment.
If the work becomes more about satisfying a pathology than actually making progress, that’s going to affect our progress. Thomas Merton, the Christian Mystic, wrote, “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by non-violent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork.” Merton was right, and not just about nonviolent protests. His thinking applies to every idealistic cause. He concludes by saying, “to surrender oneself to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone with everything, is to succumb to violence…The frenzy of the activist neutralises his work for peace.”
We have to ask ourselves, why would we choose to go into an industry where our compensation is not tied to our value? Where we are constantly told that there are not enough resources with which to fulfill our potential to make a difference? Why would we do that if I really do want to change things? And why would we choose to work on problems that are so intractable? What in our personalities draws us to frustratingly difficult — perhaps unsolvable — problems?
Merton also wrote, “Charity is a self-interest which seeks fulfillment in the renunciation of all its interests.” It would be one thing if we made these renunciations from a place of enlightened choice. But I have a hunch that most of us aren’t that enlightened yet.
I don’t think it’s the case that the nonprofit sector doesn’t draw smart people. In some cases, I think it draws people that are too smart for their own good. Codependent human beings are typically very clever human beings. Particularly with respect to the satisfaction of their codependent needs.
The point of this post is not to come to a point, but to raise a question that has gone too long unasked. And to ask it in the hope that by engaging it we might improve our own psychological health and, in so doing, our effectiveness in the world.
Do we really know why we do this work? Really?