In Oscar Wilde’s famous book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the cynical character Harry says, “Philanthropic people lose all sense of humanity. It is their distinguishing characteristic.” At first, I dismissed it as a dialogue by a hedonist, amoral character. Then, I wondered if there is any truth to the statement. As I pondered about it, it somehow made sense. In fact, the statement seemed to extend to all sorts of people working for a noble cause.
I first thought of all the calls from NGOs I get at untimely hours who keep bugging me to contribute to some cause I know nothing about. The problem is that they usually expect a specific amount every month for a decade or two. They don’t accept anything lesser than the minimum specified amount and won’t accept a single time transaction. They expect an EMI, which actually makes sense from their perspective because it ensures that a child’s education is taken care of. However, I don’t know if I can afford the amount that they want me to pay in the future because I have my own commitments and we live in a situation where job stability is not a given. Also, I have no way of knowing whether they are legitimate, but they keep badgering me and coaxing me to take responsibility for some child.
Rather than some child in Africa (they usually say African children, don’t they?) I am more inclined to help my own maid’s child or the ironing lady’s child, who I see every day. Helping with their child’s education gives me the satisfaction of seeing them grow right in front of my eyes. Also, I know for sure that I am not being deceived. Most importantly, they don’t expect me to hand them a certain amount every month. If I am having surplus money this month, I can help out more. If I am broke this month, they won’t force me to help them, but I can refer a friend or relative who would trust me and help them in my stead. This is not the case with NGOs. I am not in a position to commit to a cause, so I decline the NGOs and that makes me feel bad.
What makes them annoying is how they keep calling frequently. Sometimes, you cut their calls because you are in a meeting and they keep calling again and again till you pick up. As someone who does not like answering phone calls, I absolutely hate these folks.
If telephone marketing of NGOs is annoying, I find their door to door marketing worse. While I can cut a call or block a number, I can’t bring myself to slam the door on someone’s face, especially if they are representing a good cause. Here’s the problem, though. These people are usually the most persuasive speakers who simultaneously manage to stroke your ego and make you feel bad and/or stupid for not helping their cause. They go, “Oh, you give money to NGO A? That’s bad, they don’t do good work. Why don’t you stop that and give your money to our NGO instead?”
These people ask personal questions that are not acceptable to ask a stranger and they seem to lack basic civic manners. Their worst trait, in my humble opinion, is trying to flatter you in order to make you give them your money. An NGO rep once asked me if I was North Indian. When I said no, he appeared to be surprised and proceeded to ask if I was a Malayali. Again, I said no and he responded, “Really? But you don’t look Tamil at all. I thought you were North Indian.”
In case you are wondering why I was annoyed, there is a general misconception that all Tamil people have dark skin. Also, there is the society’s idea that fair skin is beautiful and dark skin is not. Combining these two thought processes, some marketing idiots think that saying I don’t look Tamil will subtly hint that they think I’m beautiful and I will be persuaded to buy whatever crap they try to sell me. While the NGO guy thought he was complimenting me, I was actually wondering how he hoped to enrol me in his cause when he just indirectly insulted my race.
These annoying encounters make me see NGO representatives as holding a marketing campaign that they want me to consume. Just like the way a product is advertised and people are brainwashed to buy it, NGOs seem to market a cause and brainwash me into getting involved with them. While I can say no to a product and walk away without a second thought, saying no to a good cause, even if I don’t know whether it is legitimate, makes me feel bad about myself as a person and I cannot stop thinking about it for a few days. For these reasons, I cannot bring myself to think of NGOs as completely 100% humane.
Next, I remembered the volunteering work I’ve done in the past, if you could even call it that. I won’t lie, being a couch potato with limited spare time, my volunteering is limited to helping out with writing, be it for posters or call for actions or newsletters. If a volunteering activity involves writing and not much work that requires me to get out of my couch, I’m all up for it.
There was this time when I first began helping out a cause by writing for all the communications needs. However, the person who requested me to help out did not mention that I was the one writing all the stuff, so it looked like I was doing nothing while he got all the credit. I was replaced for that task because people thought I wasn’t actively involved. Where is the virtue in that, eh? I didn’t crave the credit, but getting kicked out after doing my part seems unfair.
What disturbed me was that even in charity and social responsibility works, one is expected to brag about their doings, else people judge them as not doing anything and find a ‘better’ replacement. I agree that one is expected to project their work when it comes to their office, but when it is a completely voluntary thing which gives no benefit except for the happiness of doing something good, why boast about it?
Eventually, I quit the group because I didn’t find their work meaningful. Every moment I was there, I was annoyed by something or the other. For instance, there were a few people who did not even care about the cause they were helping out but were just participating for the fame. Apart from these fakers, there were those who did a small task but boasted about it as if they literally saved someone’s life. Then everyone would applaud these folks as if they did monumental work, when in fact they would have done minuscule work that may not even be of any help to anyone.
I know that volunteers are hard to come by and need to be encouraged. I know that previous work needs to be advertised so that more people are aware of the group and there is a chance of getting new volunteers. Yet, I still cannot bring myself to boast about a contribution to charity work.
Perhaps it is because the Tamil proverb that goes like, “Even your left hand should not know what your right hand gives out in charity to others” was taught to me as a child and I refuse to let go of it. Nowadays, I’m trying to find a way to volunteer where I don’t need to see people in person, where I don’t have to work in a team because I don’t want to tell anyone that I did something for a cause.
I’ve also seen some men use their CSR contribution as a brownie point to flirt. Not only for showing off that they are a good guy, but also taking up volunteering so that they could approach women about it. Seeing such behaviour obviously made me disgruntled.
I resigned myself to think like Harry and began to look at the world through a dark lens. I became sceptical of every cause I saw, every NGO I heard of, every representative that pestered me and every person who said they loved to volunteer. Then, I realized that I was drawing conclusions based on my poor exposure to the world of NGOs and philanthropy. I was not considering the many people who do great work that actually bring a change to the society.
I then recalled my friend who spends almost every weekend travelling to a town in the outskirts of the city to teach underprivileged children. I remembered my colleagues who packed food to give to the needy once a week. I recollected them buying blankets for homeless people during winters. I thought of the amazing amount of volunteering done by the youth during the Chennai floods of 2015.
Then, I pulled myself out of my cynical thoughts and realized that there is more hope for our world because the spirit of humanity and benevolence still thrive. Sure, some philanthropists, some NGO representatives, some CSR leads may have no humanity, but not all of them. I will have to disagree with Harry after all.
P.S. If you know of a way to do virtual volunteering, please let me know in the comments. But don’t ask me to volunteer in your NGO. I’m looking for something like Online Volunteering.