It’s Time to Delete “Give Back” from Our Vocabulary… Here’s Why!

Empathy, Transformative Volunteering

There’s a quote at the start of Anand Giridharadas’ “Winners Take All” that I think about all the time:  

Social change is not a project that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another.” Letter to Baha’i from the Universal House of Justice in Haifa, Israel

I think like most people in the world of Social Impact and philanthropy who read that book, my entire world was turned upside down. We often talk at RW about how learning can be, well, uncomfy. For a good chunk of my career, I had the notion that I was anti-capitalist. Reading this book was like having a bucket of ice water dumped on my head. Ice baths are uncomfortable, people. Here’s the thing: I live in North America. I have a job in the Social Impact space. I work with large corporations, for the most part. How can I be anti-capitalist while fully participating in and contributing to the capitalist system? Am I… a giant hypocrite? (Spoiler: this question will remain unresolved). 

Let me now swing to talking about one of my favorite poets, Ocean Vuong. In an extremely wonderful podcast with Glennon Doyle (another of my teachers), he talks about his relationship with masculinity. He talks about how, although he does not always feel at home in he/him pronouns, he has decided to stay with them and with the construct of male/masculinity. That it’s been poorly demonstrated, but that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. He doesn’t want to leave it behind. He asks, “What can we salvage and rebuild?” “How do we use this better, if at all?” He says he is, “interested in complicating masculinity.” And I feel the same way about capitalism. I could choose to reject it as a system, but I want to stay and complicate, see what there is to salvage, how to make it better.  

So, what’s the deal with this phrase “giving back”? Why am I getting so hung up on it?  

Let’s complicate. 

Breauna Dorelus (who is my hero) talks in this podcast about this phrase, specifically that if you’re “giving back” there’s also the implication that something was taken away. If it’s true that social change is not a project that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another, what does that mean for “giving back”? My most generous read of this phrase is that it’s referencing all that the community has given to the people within it; maybe it’s talking about all that nonprofits do for society – supporting marginalized folks, addressing inequity, tackling environmental and economic issues that affect us all. I think this phrase has good intentions. But I also think there’s a dark side to it because this is not how I see it used. It’s often more like: “You have a need. I have the power to address this need. Therefore, I will be generous and give you what you need…after I decide what makes it worth it to me.”  

This is harmful. What do I mean by “harmful”? In short, and at its core, I believe “giving back” is part of a savior mindset. Typically, volunteering is thought of as a positive, selfless act. And I’m sure people will want to fight me on this, but – I do not really think there is a world in which volunteering is selfless or altruistic and that that is perfectly right (read more on this here). But! I do think it can be a truly positive act – with a community-centric approach (sidebar: if anyone wants to work with me to translate the principles of Community Centric Fundraising to apply to corporate volunteering, or if that already exists somewhere, email me. Vu Le, if you’re out there, I’m a big, big fan!).  

When corporate volunteers are undertrained, or not trained at all, and they just head on out into the community, what we see is that they establish and quickly break relationships with nonprofit partners, they don’t understand the communities that they’re working with, or they impose their beliefs of what is right and wrong on nonprofits and community members. This is when harm occurs.

Let’s talk about this concept of mindset in a volunteering context.

Mindset is: 

  • What we personally value and how that motivates us to volunteer 
  • How we define what makes volunteering effective/useful 
  • How we perceive the communities we’re trying to support 
  • Our beliefs about those communities and the individuals in them  

A big part of taking a no-harm approach to volunteering is openness: an openness to listening to nonprofit partners and community members, to reflecting upon and learning about our mindset, to examining our biases so we’re aware of how those show up when we volunteer.  

The point of corporate volunteering, over and above all other business and community related objectives, is mindset shift. It’s recognizing and examining our worldview through our volunteering experience and being open to growth and change. Because – and it’s never comfortable to admit this – we all have assumptions about people or groups who are different from us, who we have not spent time with, who we may see as an “other.” If we’re not careful, the “helping” posture inherent in “giving back” will keep overtaking a “belonging” posture – a “power with” posture. It will keep dividing people into the “haves” and “have-nots.”  

We all have different access to privilege and power based on certain aspects of our identities – for example, gender, economic standing, or race. Privilege and power can manifest in volunteering as saviorism. Power is the ability to influence and make decisions that impact others, and certain privileges or the lack of certain privileges can create power differentials or unequal power dynamics between individuals, groups, or communities. Saviorism in volunteering puts the comfort of the volunteer at the center. This is what we want to avoid – because volunteering isn’t about prioritizing the comfort of volunteers. It’s about improving their ability to sit with discomfort, to challenge their own assumptions and biases, and as a result become more inclusive, more empathetic. 

By training corporate volunteers to lead volunteering with a no-harm approach, we can move from “giving back” to “standing with,” from “helping” to belonging – towards a truly community-centric approach.

Kelly Lynch

Senior Strategic Consultant

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Realized Worth helps you take a transformative approach to volunteering. We work with companies to create scalable and measurable volunteering programs that empower and engage employees, focus on empathy and inclusivity, and align with your most important business objectives. Talk to us today to learn more!

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