When helping others, your original intentions matter

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I don’t care if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice. - Deng Xiaoping

In Cambodia, there is a high profile founder of a children’s charity. This person’s story is as alluring, if not more alluring, than the work that the charity does.

People are highly polarised by this person.

About a third of people think the charity is incredible, and improving the lives of thousands of children. Another third believe the founder is a narcissist, and abhor the photos posted on social media, at times with the founder carrying topless children. The final third are somewhere in the middle. They admit that while self-promotion is grating, the charity’s work speaks for itself.

Maybe it’s in the blood, but like Deng Xiaoping, I tend to be a pragmatic person. I try to avoid judging people too much, considering I don’t know the inner workings of their own mind.

I’ve always believed that the outcome of your work is most important. If people benefit from your project, then proof is in the pudding. If the ends are positive, there’s no need to scrutinise the means too much.

Recently, I’ve changed my mind.

I now believe your original intentions do matter – because everything you do flows from that. And ultimately, even if unintended, you can do more harm than good with the wrong intentions.

Never, in the history of humankind, has there been such potential for unintended consequences of good intentions.

Even a quarter of a century ago, the idea that an unskilled volunteer could fly to another part of the world to help someone living in poverty was unheard of. Now, this is an enormous industry in and of itself.

Aid work, once the domain of a select few, has been democratised. It’s now the domain of many.

It doesn’t take much to be part of a global movement of “helping”.

Amongst all of the flying in and out, amongst all of the volunteering hours, bike rides and fun runs, there is a question which needs to be asked:

Fundamentally, who is this serving?

Is it yourself? Is it university students needing work experience? Is it corporates needing staff engagement?

Or is it the vulnerable people themselves?

Of course, all socially good projects serve a multitude of interests, so it’s perhaps overly simplistic to look at this issue this way. But the question is, who was the project set up to primarily serve? Who is it solving a problem for?

Here are some examples of how to keep the original intentions in check.


You’ve all heard this kind of story before. An otherwise successful individual, who, from the outside, seems to have it all, is having difficulty finding purpose in their life. On a whim, he and his wife take a trip to Nepal.

Whilst sitting in an outdoor café in Kathmandu, they see a child rummaging through the nearby bin, to look for food. Struck at this sight, they decide to quit their decades long career in banking, to move to Kathmandu to start a home for street children.

They find incredible meaning in their work. The children start to refer to them as mum and dad.

Over time, the couple start to realise that with aging parents back home, they need to leave Nepal. But despite operating in Kathmandu for 15 years, they are not ready to hand over their work. Meanwhile, more and more evidence is emerging about the dangers of institutionalising children. They feel that it is too late for them to change their model.

The children’s home continues to operate until the couple pass away. They fly between Kathmandu and home regularly to maintain both control over the operation and to fundraise.

Up to 85% of children in orphanages in Nepal have parents. So why are they kept in orphanages?

University students

In Australia, a university is able to access grants for audiology students to do student placements overseas. These opportunities are a really helpful way for students to gain experience, particularly in countries with virtually no local services.

The university starts regular trips for students to fly to Laos for 2 weeks, visiting remote villages to provide audiology clinics to poor villagers.

The students fundraise for their costs, and hundreds of people receive services.

Unfortunately, as the students return home, there is no follow up of their work. If they had returned to the village, they would find the majority of villagers with broken hearing aids, as no one locally can repair them.

The next batch of students coming next year also have no baseline in which to start. And despite all the flying in and out, there is not one single Laotian audiologist in country. No university course, no government awareness, no demand for the service.

Until we stop selling the idea that you can change the world with a 2 week trip, we won’t stop fly in fly out voluntourism.


Realising a lack of engagement amongst their staff, a financial services firm in San Francisco ask their staff what causes they would like to support. A few mention that they are particularly struck by the plight of people in Haiti, who are still recovering from the 2010 earthquake.

The firm decides to set up a yearly trip to volunteer in Haiti, building homes for villagers. The staff fundraise for their own costs, so it doesn’t cost the firm or the villagers anything.

They find a local partner in Haiti to introduce them to villages who are lacking housing.

Due to a lack of skills and experience in manual labour, the local partner needs to simplify the process and materials used to build homes. It turns out that the new homes the staff have assembled are not earthquake or hurricane proof.

The $100,000 raised for the 5 staff does not result in any long term change for the people in Haiti.

Houses built in Haiti by unskilled volunteers. Where has this left the country?

Arthur Schopenhauer summed up the problem well:

Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world.

In all three scenarios, every party has a vision and an intention to improve the lives of others. This is admirable.

But they are also solving a problem primarily for themselves – the lack of meaning for the individual, the lack of sites for work experience for the students, the lack of purpose for corporate staff.

This view limits what the individuals are able to offer as a solution, and results in meaningless work at best, but at worst, harm.

There is also the question of resourcing. The $100,000 spent in the final example, could be far better spent by local organisations.

In Honduras, a study of houses built by international volunteers found that they cost $30,000 apiece, including airfare, while local Christian organisations could build them for $2,000.

Our desire to help others is admirable. And there are more options than ever to do it. But it must come from the right place. The fundamental questions needs to be asked:

Who is this serving? Whose problem are we primarily solving here?

Despite the initial discomfort that these questions can provide, they will result in more effective work being done. More people being having their lives improved in more effect ways.

And isn’t that the point of all of this anyway?

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