Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

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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2 Responses to “Caveat Altruist”

  1. Mike,

    I’m linking to this on twitter. Tried to find you there without success. Do you tweet?

  2. Aaron, thank you for linking to my post on Twitter. To answer your question, no, I actually don’t Tweet.

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