Why I'm re-thinking the way I do good

By James Murphy

If you feel like you’re spreading yourself thin when it comes to supporting good causes, I hear you. And this is a confronting confession from a social worker who has operated a “good cause” business for over a decade. (And who plans to continue to do so.)

You and I may be suffering from what I call “cause fatigue”.  Brands, big and small, now give us ample opportunity to support causes when we buy their products.

Everyday items – from mints to soaps and even toilet paper – are now linked with causes that support anything from ending world poverty to empowering youth worldwide and building toilets in developing countries.

Are these types of causes bad? No, they’re not. They offer an easy and practical way for us to reach our weekly quota of doing good.

But they are also transactional. You give something, but only because you are getting something too.

This transactional association with doing good starts young. Primary school fundraising brochures now colourfully list prizes that kids can choose from if they raise enough money. Just $10 raised will get you some swag. And I thought the actual thing they are fundraising for – library books, a friendship seat or running track – was the reward.

The other thing about these transactional causes is that, while they certainly do help somebody, that person is usually very far away. Time magazine editor at large and author Anand Giridharadas made this point in his 2018 book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.

In it, Giridharadas argues that everyone wants to change the world on their own and that people show greater interest in distant humanitarian causes than in the pain of people, say, 10 kilometres away or even next door.

Reading the book made me realise that supporting transactional causes makes me feel good because my money is helping someone, somewhere. But these causes don’t encourage me to invest in the people closest to me, or with strangers in my local community.

So, how will I reconcile my cause fatigue with my desire to do good? Today, the 20th anniversary of World Kindness Day, is an ideal time to do things a bit differently.

Instead of just giving money to causes, I’ve decided to give my time and energy to the people around me through small acts of kindness. And I’m going to give without expecting anything in return.

I’m going to knock on the door of a neighbour who I haven’t seen in a while. I’m going to make that phone call to a friend who went through a hard time earlier this year. Or visit a nursing home resident for a chat and cuppa.

It can be much easier and neater to do good or be kind by buying a nicely branded product with a catchy slogan. Because reaching out to people around us — neighbours, colleagues or even strangers — forces us to get personal, and out of our comfort zones. It can be awkward and sometimes our efforts are ill timed or rebuffed by the person we are trying to help.

But when we do hit the mark with this type of kindness, the impact that it has on an individual and wider community is priceless.