‘Massive salaries seem to keep people going pretty well in South Sudan, from what I can tell: “Grin and bank it”‘ wrote a humanitarian professional in a LinkedIn discussion on burnout.
I’m not sure how popular the comment was, but we didn’t have to wait long for a reply: ‘Ultimately for many aid workers, that desire to be able to help alleviate suffering is a far bigger motivation than money’.
This exchange attracted my attention because it’s asking all of us to bring some awareness around why we are doing what we are doing.
Why am I here?
Motivation changes throughout time, and so it should be: what moves a volunteer in her 20s, is unlikely to be what drives a head of mission in her 40s. Regardless of age, what motivates you to work for a humanitarian organisation matters. Is the biggest motivation the desire to alleviate suffering? Is it justice? Is it money? Is it anger? Is it guilt? Is it the challenging lifestyle? Is it that you want to be as far as possible from your family? Is it all of this, or none of this?
Holding contradictory motivations: we are ‘selfish altruists’
I’d like to borrow Tony Vaux’s expression, the ‘selfish altruist’: there is no such a thing as a purely selfless act, we give something, we receive something, whether it’s money, power, love, appreciation, gratitude. It’s not too far-fetched to say that even Mother Teresa had an ‘agenda’, which may have been ‘the love of God’.
In her paper on self-knowledge as the basis for humanity, Jane Gilbert writes: ‘contradictory motives will most often be present simultaneously’. Indeed they are, whether we acknowledge it or not. ‘There are always parts of the self’ she continues ‘which, when looked at clearly, are in conflict with each other. It is this capacity to hold and face up to conflicting motives and feelings that is most challenging in the process of internal reflection.’
Holding this complex contradictions together is not always simple, and the media have been pretty good at depicting the ‘whites in shining armour’ selflessly going to help those in need, fuelling a patronising ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.
Selfless motivation? The road to burnout
I think we need to go beyond the idea that when we do good, we have to do it out of a pure selfless motivation. Which leads me to burnout: driven by guilt many professionals (and volunteers) burnout because they forget themselves in the process of helping others. It’s all about someone else’s needs, leaving no ‘breathing space’ for their own needs. Going back to my silly Mother Teresa analogy, while she worked her butt off in India, I bet she had a huge breathing space called God. Beat that as a support!
Money and burnout
And money? What does it have to do with motivation? Now money and power are just not the most elegant topics of discussion, especially in the nonprofit sector, but it’s never to late to name the pink elephant in the room.
A big salary will not save anyone from burnout, but certainly no salary or a symbolic per diem will add to the stress and frustration, and can become a contributing factor to burnout. A big shout out to young people: Are you working for free? How long are you prepared to do it for? What’s in it for you? What are you learning?
And for more seasoned professionals: what’s motivating you to be in South Sudan, Palestine, Kenya, Thailand, or HQ in New York? Is it money? Guilt? Anger? Making a difference? A great location?
I was recently interviewed about what motivates me to be in Jerusalem. I found it a useful way to pause, unpack my own agenda, and reflect on what the Middle East has been teaching me over the last few years. Some journaling on this can help bring clarity, especially if feeling confused or stuck.
Guilt and empathy
I opened with a quote, now let me end with another one: ‘The most useless people are the people who are driven by guilt, because it is all about them! The most useful people are driven by a sense of abundance’ says Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenbeg, amazing woman and executive director of Akili Dada. Her interview is well worth 3 minutes of your time!
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