Volunteerism amid the Social Media Era: Is It Genuine?
It’s admirable — a colleague is packing up their old clothes to donate to the homeless. Another is spending their vacation teaching children somewhere in Africa. Another colleague is helping pack food packets for frontliners. How did you know about all this? You saw it on social media.
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Well-meaning folks might share their charitable ways on social media to inspire others to do the same. For example, handing out water at a marathon held to raise funds for cancer is now a photo opportunity for some to showcase their sympathy and involvement in charity. It can encourage greater participation from volunteers in future marathons, but it can also invite volunteers who are solely in it to create a good public image.
The age of social media allowed people to present themselves in the image they would like to portray. Users can be manipulated into believing that someone is kinder than they actually are with a simple post on charity. This begs the question:
Is the intention in each charitable post to inspire, or is it all for PR?
When celebrities flash out donations by the millions or start their foundation so that they can refer to it whenever their charity is questioned, people either gawk at their philanthropy or dismiss it as fake. According to Forbes, the latter is true because some celebrities don’t pick up the phone when asked to follow through with their publicly announced donation.
Similarly, there is a tendency to share good deeds online. Their motivation might be to share their experiences and inspire others to do the same, but social media keeps us in the loop for FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). The Keeping Up with the Joneses effect of social media makes its users compete with one another. Some users might see the honest good deeds of others as a self-righteous act rather than solely as kindness. As a result, the motivation of others to volunteer becomes a photo opportunity.
Each photo opportunity comes at an expense — pity is placed on the homeless, the poor, the elderly, and the unfortunate. Rather than creating a shared sense of unity between the haves and have-not, it strengthens the divide. Those being helped lose dignity when they are looked down upon as mere charity cases rather than real people who need genuine help.
For example, there is the TOM’S shoe model. A pair of shoes that you buy from their company means that they will donate a pair to a child in need somewhere around the world. It sounds like it will help alleviate children from poverty, and many people have bought into it.
But this ethical business model is often criticized as problematic, lacking actual context before providing help. A village in Jordan might need more than shoes to solve its problems. It might need access to clean water, food, or microfinancing instead. It encourages a flawed, savior mentality. A photo of children in Jordan receiving shoes from TOM’S means that TOM’s will be able to sell more shoes.
On the other hand, a voluntary visit to a random senior living in a rest home allows their stories to be shared with a younger generation. No matter the motivation of a volunteer at a rest home, the elderly are placed front and center. Their presence commands respect as gatekeepers of this country’s history. A volunteer that shares their encounters with seniors at a rest home is more likely to inspire a new generation to visit homes rather than creating a more image for the volunteer.
How can meaningful change be created?
Although volunteerism is used as a political and commercial tool, maintaining a genuine effort to help others should never disappear. Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself if you’re doing the right thing:
1. What does the person in need actually need? People tend to forget to ask. Assuming that you know what they need without asking them might lead to helping them in the wrong way. If you’re going to create meaningful change, it has to be meaningful for you and the person you’re trying to help.
2. Is this to help someone or to have something to post on social media? If it’s both, you’re definitely leaning more towards the latter. Make sure that your intentions are pure.
Trying to be genuine in an incessantly manipulated platform such as social media can be exhausting. As long as you know that your intentions are pure and you’ve taken every step to help others while preserving their dignity, what matters most is that you know that you participated in making someone’s life a little better.