Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Archive for September, 2010

What do you want said about you at your funeral?

Posted by mikeonpurpose on September 30, 2010

One of the reasons that the topic of voluntourism (and volunteerism) interests me is that I have become increasingly aware of the shortness of my own human lifespan, and as a result I have felt a need to make an impact on the world in the time that I have left. So I was amused by this Candorville comic from a couple of days ago:

I think that the punchline addresses the very sorts of existential questions that my impending death leads me to ask, and which also serves as the basis for my need to inquire on how I can make my life more meaningful. If I had eons to live, I might not feel such a pressing need to make an impact. Ironically, perhaps it is the very tragedy of the shortness of our lives that can make it possible for life to have more significance.


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Swimming upstream against the tide of economic injustice

Posted by mikeonpurpose on September 18, 2010

Jim Keady is the founder of an organization called Team Sweat, which works to end sweatshops and other abusive labor practices in developing countries.  In particular he has focused on Nike, which has been one of the biggest corporate abusers in this matter.

How he became a crusader on this issue is itself an interesting story.  Many years ago, he was hired to be a soccer coach as St. Johns University.  According to a the Team Sweat website,

This was the coaching opportunity of a lifetime and Jim joined the Redstorm staff in the summer of 1997.  Along with his coaching, Jim also enrolled in the graduate school to pursue a masters degree in Theology.  It was at St. John’s where Jim’s life would take a major turn.

As part of a class assignment, Jim began to research Nike’s labor practices in light of Catholic Social Teaching and subsequently found that Nike’s factories were de facto sweatshops with long hours, low wages, and an overall exploitation of mostly poor women in developing countries.

At the same time Jim was doing his research, St John’s University Athletic Department began to negotiate a $3.5 million dollar endorsement deal with Nike that would require all athletes and coaches to wear and endorse the products.  Jim questioned the endorsement deal privately at first, and then publicly.  Eventually he was given an ultimatum by his head coach – “Wear Nike and drop this issue…or resign.”  Deciding that as a matter of conscience, he could not turn a blind eye to the way Nike made its profits, Jim said he would not publicly endorse Nike.

In May 1998, Jim was forced to resign.

Losing your job over a matter of social conscience is surely one of the toughest decisions anyone can make.  After all, we all have to put food on our tables.   And when the job you are giving up had seemed to be the opportunity of a lifetime, the decision has to be even more agonizing.

It seems clear to me that living your life in a way that expresses your values is not necessarily easy to do in our consumer culture, especially if your values run counter to the prevailing ideology of capitalist consumerism.  We are, according to this ideology, expected to make decisions in accordance with rational self-interest.   We might decide to buy a particular product because it is cheaper, or because we like the color, or for some other reason that has only to do with our own personal desires and needs as consumers.  The idea that one might choose or not choose to buy something because of a deeper moral consideration, perhaps involving objections to the company that makes a particular product, does not fit well into this model.  Nike, to be sure, does not want you evaluating how they treat the workers that make the products that they want you to buy.  They have a vested interest, as a matter of fact, in making sure that you don’t take such things into account at all.  But we should not just blame Nike for what is a pervasive cultural expectation; the real problem is that our economic system, rooted as it is in this ideology of “rational self-interest”, has a specific, albeit perverse, idea of what is rational.  In particular, it often does not seem to  incorporate having a social conscience into its definition of rational consumer choices.  “Rational” means, instead (according to this view), acting in the best interests of the gratification of the self.   If we do decide to act on behalf of a greater purpose than how a particular product satisfies our own financial or personal gratification, in particular by taking into account others who are not directly involved in the immediate economic transaction between ourselves and another party, then we are seen as simply being irrational.

But who decided that this is really what it means to be rational?  As an example of how pervasive this definition of what “rational” behavior supposedly is, here is the opening paragraph from this article in the New York Times book review about a book titled Predictably Irrational:

Consider an experiment economists call “the ultimatum game”: The experimenter gives one player, the sender, $20 to distribute between himself and another player, the receiver. An egalitarian sender might propose a split of $10 each. A more selfish sender might propose to give the receiver only $1, keeping $19 for himself. If the receiver accepts the deal, the two players collect their shares. If the receiver rejects the deal, both walk away with nothing. Were humans perfectly rational, the receiver would accept whatever is offered: even a dollar is better than nothing, right? Instead, researchers find, receivers will reject an overly lopsided deal, gladly giving up their shares just to punish the stingy senders.

Note the presupposition in the above paragraph–that rejecting an unjust economic arrangement that would benefit you personally, but that would otherwise not be fair to all concerned parties, is somehow not “rational”.  And this presupposition is simply taken for granted, without being justified.  We are just supposed to assume that this definition of rationality is self-evident.   Note in particular that in the example of “Ultimatum Game” cited in the above quote, there is an additional assumption that any economic transaction really only involves the two proximate parties.  Laissez-faire dogma asserts that the free market is simply the sum of a lot of similar, freely made economic transactions.  This assumption serves as the basis of libertarian and free market ideology that many people seriously subscribe to, as a matter of fact.

I submit to you that there is nothing inherently rational about seeking to maximize personal economic gain if it comes at the expense of others, even when those others are not involved in the immediate economic transaction.  In fact, I categorically reject this definition of “rational”.  However, I would also submit that the ideology of capitalism expects us to think this way, and that corporations in particular want you to think that way.

But the big question is how we can live our lives in accordance with values that go beyond the mere pursuit of economic self-interest.   To illustrate, consider this example from my own life.  Many years ago, I took some voice over classes.  I am not sure why I did so, but I guess I imagined that it might be a fun thing to try.  Not all voice over work is focused on radio advertising, but a lot of it is, and it can be a lucrative direction to go for some particularly successful individuals.  I wasn’t really that interested in doing commercials, but I got a little swept up in taking classes that were part of the advertising track because that was where so much of the emphasis at the voice over school was placed and it was the easiest direction to go.  However, one day, after hearing the teacher emphasizing that one should not ever turn down an invitation to a voice over audition because you probably won’t be called for an audition the next time, I had to ask the question that had been nagging me for some time:

“What if you have a moral objection to the particular company whose advertisement you have been called to audition for?”

The  looks of befuddlement I got from the teacher and the other students was priceless–you’d think I’d just landed from Mars.   One woman said to me, in total seriousness, “I’m a vegetarian, but I would have no problem doing commercials for McDonalds.”  Another student joked that that the KKK probably wasn’t taking out any radio ads so it shouldn’t be a problem.  It was right then and there that I realized that I was in the wrong place.  The idea of prostituting myself to corporations had been nagging me up to this point anyway, and this made me realize that this kind of work expected you to be essentially amoral.   The “rational self-interest” of the voice over professional was simply to earn money by applying artistic talent in the service of the corporate client, and if one were to into account questions of social justice that would only interfere with this.  Voice over work was, in other words, just a simple economic transaction between yourself as the voice over actor and the company that hires you.  My not wanting to end up doing commercials for companies that were engaged in questionable practices–like Nike with its sweatshops–was not consistent with this principle.

I understand that being a consumer is hard.  My goal is not to sit in judgment of people who buy products from companies that use sweatshop labor, but rather to simply encourage people to consider these issues a little more.  We who live in economically developed countries can easily ignore what companies like Nike do and just go about our business buying products based strictly on how those products satisfy our immediate consumer needs.  And frankly I understand all too well that sometimes people want to just go to the store and buy a product without constantly having to put thought into it and researching the global implications of what they buy.   This isn’t a case of laziness, but just a reflection of the fact that we all have a limited amount of time available to us and at the same time we have a dizzying array of consumer choices at our disposal.   We are really all just swimming upstream against the tide of economic injustice.

That is perhaps why I admire the tireless efforts of people like Jim Keady who work for making this place a better world and who call our attention to the abuses of companies like Nike.  It is good to be inspired to be a little more conscious of the implications our lifestyle and consumer choices.  I think that those of us who are concerned about the problems of economic and social injustice in developing countries need to consider the that these problems do not take place in a vacuum, but rather are frequently the result of economic processes that we ourselves who live in more economically advanced nations may very well be playing a role in.  If we can become conscious of these issues, not only can we live our lives in ways that are more consistent with our values, but at the same time we may find ways to work towards building a better and more just world.

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Caveat Altruist

Posted by mikeonpurpose on September 5, 2010

I made a reference in an earlier posting to an organization called U’sAgain, a company which takes people’s used clothing donations and sells them for a profit.  Googling this company reveals the seamy side of this sort of business and illustrates what happens when for-profit companies that rely on people’s freely donated gifts of time or possessions, gifts given with no apparent thought of personal profit but rather simply to help others, are used to serve the profit-driven goals of companies that are in it first and foremost for the attainment of filthy lucre.  Caveat altruist.

For example, this Seattle news story from last year describes how this works:

“It’s disappointing. It’s a rip off. It’s a scam. We’re donating our kids’ clothes and our clothes and shoes so they go to local charities so it pisses me off,” Arvish said.

Another donor, Louise Hutmacher, was surprised that U’SAgain is a for-profit company.“That’s not nice. It’s very deceptive. It’s cheating people here,” Hutmacher said.

A former employee, with details of U’SAgain finances, tells Team 7 Investigators the company diverts hundreds of tons of used clothing and millions of dollars away from legitimate local charity organizations in Washington every year.

Part of their success is duping unknowing donators and part is convincing businesses, like Kim’s Auto Repair, to give free space to a red U’SAgain bin.Manager, Sherry Asbury, said that employees of U’SAgain approached her and specifically told her “all proceeds were going to charity.”

She had no idea U’SAgain was a for-profit until we told her.

“That’s ridiculous. We had no idea that anything like that was going on. I thought maybe a homeless shelter or a shelter for women. I’m kind of stunned,” Asbury said.

So while U’sAgain does make it clear on their website that they are a for-profit business, they are (at least according to the above news story) apparently less open about this elsewhere.  People often assume that organizations that perform these kinds of ostensibly altruistic activities, that rely on people’s generous impulses, are not for-profit charities.  It turns out, of course, that they can be wrong.  There are always organizations out to prey on people’s altruism in order to make a buck.  That’s American capitalism for you.

I admit to my own naivete in this matter when I first began researching agencies that offered volunteer travel services.  Why I was so naive is a very good question.  Perhaps I wanted to believe the best about other people, and helping others is humanity at its very best, and that community service is what non-profits are supposed to be about.  But the reality is that whenever there is the urge to help others, there is also likely to be found others who are willing to line their pockets from those who exhibit generosity.

Yet  profiting off of others’ generosity is really just a symptom of something that I think is a much broader trend in our society.  I think we are seeing a trend of increasing corporatization and commodification of community services throughout many sectors of society.  An example that concerns me personally,  because I work for a public university, is that I see this trend taking place in higher education.  It is happening in a lot of ways; an obvious example is that certain for-profit universities like Kaplan or University of Phoenix have turned a major sector of this industry into what is effectively yet another corporate commodity.  But we also see a trend of creeping corportization within public universities as well.   State funded universities, receiving less money from public coffers, have become increasingly dependant on grants from corporate sponsors, which has the negative effects of both reducing academic independence and also of leaving in the lurch those departments whose academic disciplines are of no interest to corporate sponsors.  The pursuit of higher knowledge becomes tethered to the goal of supporting of corporate interests rather than the free pursuit of wherever knowledge will take us.

And I have seen other ways in which the values of corporate society have really taken hold in public universities.  I mentioned  in a previous posting the obscenely high $400 K salary of the CEO of CARE, but if you take a look at the salaries of the top executives of many public universities you will see that the problem is rampant throughout many other non-profit organizations and charities as well.   The University of California, for example, which has suffered through employee layoffs in recent years, is run by an individual who receives a salary of at least half a million dollars a year.  Meanwhile, many mid-level university executives, recruited from banks and similar corporations, have infused that university with a corporate style and culture.  The glory days of higher public education seem dead indeed, killed by the values of the corporate world.

One of the first things I research when I look at whether to donate money to a charity is how much the top executives of that charity are paid.  Clearly, corporate cultural values are not restricted to corporations but in fact are found within many non-profits–one need only look at CARE to see this–and I conclude from this that the problem is thus really a deeply rooted societal one.  As the consensus of neoliberalism, free markets, and globalization has become an unchallenged mantra in American society, I look at the poverty that I witness in developing countries and see what free markets are really doing.  It is no wonder that we have seen a rise in progressive politics in many Latin American countries in recent years.  As I see it, this neoliberal ideology not only has led to devastating economic effects in developing countries, but it is this very free market ideology, which has taken hold in the US as a unassailable tenet, that has had an insidious impact on the distribution of wealth in our society as well.  This ideology has been used to justify the high salaries of CEOs everywhere, both in for-profit companies and in non-profits.  The argument has been presented that these executives need to be attracted to their positions by offering them high salaries, and that these salaries are comparable to what they could make in private industry.   The implication is that, for these CEOs,  they could just as easily work in private industry as for a charity–it’s apparently all the same to them, so of course we should just pay them what they could make in for-profit companies.   (And we all know that there are no incompetent CEOs anywhere, and that is why they deserve those high salaries!  I’m sure that the former CEO of BP was worth every penny.)   What we can infer from this argument is that the mission and values of that charity are apparently not what drives these non-profit CEOs, but rather the raw pursuit of as much money as they can make.   It’s all about the pursuit of personal monetary gain and climbing to the top of the salary ladder–and yet somehow they can reconcile that value with the supposed goal of eliminating poverty.  I know that CARE is about fighting poverty because it says so right on its web page.

The power of compartmentalization!  Having a veneer of saintliness is apparently all that really counts in our society.  How the CEO of a charity whose mission is ostensibly to  fight poverty can justify making a $400,000 salary is something that I can’t quite fathom.   But there you have it.  Compartmentalization is a powerful force.  It’s all the “I’ve got mine” mentality, but one can assuage one’s guilt without considering that our own lifestyle decisions may express certain values that one ostensibly adheres to.   Jerry Brown, who is currently running for the Governor of California, likes to tout on his web site that he once spent time working with Mother Teresa.  He also currently lives in a $1.8 million mansion in the Oakland hills where you won’t find many poorer people hanging about.  Apparently that time he spent with Teresa didn’t exactly rub off on him and his personal lifestyle.  All the Mother Teresa talk is about earning credibility, about achieving saintliness by association, without actually being saintly in any meaningful way.    Call it chutzpah, call it compartmentalization, call it whatever you want.  Now I admit that I don’t live a saintly life myself, but then I also don’t go trying to project a saintly veneer by associating myself with Mother Teresa, either.

There is no easy escape from all of this.  If we are drowning in a profit-driven culture, the only way I can stay afloat is by clinging to those moments of bona fide idealism, untainted by the sullying effects of profit-driven exigencies and the attendant neoliberal ideology that is used to justify it all, when and where I can find them.  Until we can build a truly just society, which is not going to happen in my lifetime, the best I can do is grasp for whatever I can find that will keep myself afloat as I try to make the small differences that I can.  Volunteering abroad isn’t about being a savior or a saint, but rather trying to make a difference in a way that is true to my own values.  And finding a voluntourism organization that meets my values is not an easy task.  I have found some  non-profit organizations that seem committed to the kinds of goals that jibe with what I think is important.  I have no doubt there are other organizations that I am unaware of that also could work for me.  It is an ongoing endeavor to try to make lemon out of the lemonade of an economic and political system that seems not particularly interested in the pursuit of social justice.

This is not an optimistic outlook, to be sure.  But I draw my inspiration from Albert Camus, the philosopher who saw the response to an absurd life to be that of making meaning and purpose out of a dire and pessimistic situation.  I do what I can, I roll that stone up a mountain only to see the stone roll back down again, because to do nothing is to give in to despair and to give up.  And if I die without having at least tried to make a better world, then my life will have been in vain.

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Sarah Van Auken

Posted by mikeonpurpose on September 5, 2010

Sarah van Auken deserves special props for her work in compiling information about organizations that offer volunteer travel opportunities.  It was through her 2010 Volunteer Directory that I discovered El Porvenir, and I now see that she has expanded her directory and incorporated it into a free ebook.  You can also look up organizations via a page on her website.  This is a truly valuable research tool for finding potential organizations to work with, and I highly recommend checking out her website.

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Perez Hilton promotes a worthy organization

Posted by mikeonpurpose on September 5, 2010

I have to admit that I am not a follower or fan of Perez Hilton, but I recently discovered that he has  just recently given some positive publicity to El Porvenir.  Good for him, and good for El Porvenir.

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Profiteering and altruism

Posted by mikeonpurpose on September 4, 2010

The Staying for Tea blog has provided an interesting taxonomy of so-called “poverty tourism”, of which voluntourism was cited as one example.   I left a comment in response to it in which I alluded to some differences between for-profit and non-profit voluntourism operators.  This led a representative of a for-profit voluntourism operator (Geovisions) to come into the discussion to defend the fact that his organization engages in a for-profit business model that lines its pockets through the altruism of others.

In so doing, he offered what struck me as a set of talking points formulated to justify what Geovisions does.  He claimed, for example, there is no meaningful difference between a for-profit and a non-profit outfit, other than a minor technicality of what tax status each claims.  This strikes me disingenuous.  The government establishes distinctive sets of guidelines governing how each type of organization can function and what it can do with the money it makes.  These differences stem from the fact that the primary purpose of a for-profit business is to make money, while the primary purpose of a non-profit organization is to provide a community service.  To support those distinct kinds of functions, what each is allowed to do is delineated.  A non-profit organization in particular cannot distribute its profits back to the owners.   (A summary of the distinction between for-profit and non-profit enterprises can be found here.) So to assert that that there is no meaningful difference between a non-profit and a for-profit voluntourism operator sounds more like a sales pitch than an accurate description of what is going on. I can’t really blame any corporate representative of a for-profit tourism company for doing this sort of thing;  the company’s job is to make money, after all, and salesmanship and advertising include making claims that will induce people to spend their hard earned dollar on that company’s products.   The fact remains that his organization has a financial interest in convincing people who are understandably skeptical about giving their free time and energy to an organization that profits financially from what is freely give to it.  So claiming that there is no real difference between a for-profit and a non-profit voluntourism operator can be seen as a kind of sales strategy.

Most of us do understand the difference between donating money to a charity and donating money to a business.  I donate my clothes to Goodwill, but I don’t generally donate them my local for-profit local clothing store.  Geovisions and other organizations that are in the business of selling a product for profit understand this.   Hence the “there’s no difference between us and them” sales pitch.  Although, that being said, my analogy with Goodwill does provide for an interesting example outside of the voluntourism industry, and it shows that profiteering off of altruism is not restricted to voluntourism.  I recently ran across an article that discussed a for-profit business called UsAgain that takes donated clothes and sells them at a low cost in developing countries.  That being said, I will give UsAgain credit–they say right up front on their web page that they are a “for profit enterprise”.  This is not something I have seen stated so clearly on the home page of any voluntourism operator web page I have looked into.

For example, when I go to the Geovisions web site and click on the “About Us” link, I do not see anything that indicates that they are a for-profit enterprise.   Maybe it says so somewhere and I just missed it.  In any case, the Geovisions representative claimed in the blog discussion that I cited above that none of their customers actually cares about that; this therefore served as a justification for not needing to go out of their way to publicize this fact.  I can’t speak for how many people care about it; I can only speak for myself.  I do care.  Which is why I spend a fair amount of time researching organizations before I volunteer with them.

He did raise a valid point by mentioning that just because an organization is a non-profit, that is no guarantee that it is ethical or well-run.  This is certainly true.  That is why, for me, learning whether an organization is a non-profit or not is just a starting point.  The next step for me is to do further research, through Guide Star or Charity Navigator or other resources at my disposal.   Research into not just voluntourism operators but charities in general can be disheartening at times.  Some non-profits pay their CEOs obscenely high salaries.   The CEO of CARE–which of course is not a voluntourism operator, but the example is still egregious enough–makes a salary, or at least did the last time I checked, of about $400,000 a year. That is not something I would ever choose to contribute my charity dollar to.

Of course, everyone has to make their own decisions in this area.  If someone really doesn’t have a problem with volunteering their time and money through a for-profit voluntourism operator, then they should by all means do so.  But this is something I choose not to do.

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