By Emily Payne
Charitable narcissism may sound like an oxymoron, since, by definition, narcissistic personalities lack empathy. The phrase refers to when a person volunteers to feel good about themselves, rather than to benefit an organization or group of individuals in need. During the holiday season, naturally, this idea is most apparent.
With benefits, charity drives, and social media shares filled with themes of spreading joy, giving, helping, and sharing, society puts increased pressure on “doing good” during the holiday season. People want others to see them acting charitable, and that’s easier to do now than ever before—the #GivingTuesday campaign is rooted in the power of posts and tweets to entice others to be charitable.
As a result, food pantries and kitchens working to feed the hungry are often unable to accommodate increased volunteer requests. After a few decades of charity work, Joel Berg, Executive Director of Hunger Free America and author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?, attests that, each year, he and his colleagues see overbooking of food pantries and kitchens throughout the holidays. By February, though, organizations are short-staffed again.
Is this influx of volunteers due to a genuine interest in the work, or a narcissistic desire to fulfill that “feel good” factor?
SELFISH OR SELFLESS?
As a whole, narcissism is increasing in society. “Four cross-sectional, one retrospective, and four over-time datasets are consistent with higher narcissism among those in more recent (younger) generations,” notes Jean M. Twenge, PhD, associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Twenge calls it not just an increase, but an epidemic.
“American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy,” states Twenge’s book, The Narcissism Epidemic. A cultural shift towards individualism has manifested through books, song lyrics, and television, apparent with an increased use of self-focused pronouns over the years.
Narcissistic personalities have thrived on the rise social media in the past decade. Now, not only can volunteering make you feel good, it can make you look good in the eyes of your peers. Social media platforms serve as free publicity. One of the most prevalent examples of this has been the ice bucket challenge, a viral trend which helped raise more than $115 million by encouraging people to post a video of themselves on social media.
Often, volunteers don’t care what the task is or if they’re even helping, as long as they can gain the experience of doing feel-good volunteer work. One paper in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that this behavior extends beyond volunteering—for example, narcissistic personalities are more likely to buy environmentally friendly products if they are more likely to be seen and admired by others for doing so.
“It is perhaps the greatest sign of our narcissistic times,” Berg says, “that the activities that are most meant to be anti-narcissistic end up morphing into narcissism.” He notes that this doesn’t mean the majority, or even a large minority, of volunteers he encounters are motivated by charitable narcissism, but he and his peers see the sentiment in their daily work—and it often inhibits the organization’s mission.
GETTING IN THE WAY
It isn’t easy saying no to a group of individuals asking to volunteer their time to help those less fortunate. But showing up to the soup kitchen or local food pantry on Thanksgiving or Christmas might not only prove to be no benefit, it could be hindering food delivery by simply having too many people in the facility. Berg recalls organizations hiding the forklift in the back of a food bank, instead having twenty volunteers do work manual labor over the course of two hours, when the forklift could do it in five minutes. Once, he was told that he ruined a group’s holiday because he was unable to provide them with volunteer opportunities.
Regardless of the motivation, the demand is present. Can charitable narcissism be used to drive effective volunteerism?
In every good relationship, both parties benefit. Whether or not they’re driven by charitable narcissism, volunteers can make a more effective impact by using their unique skills to contribute volunteer work; wanting to do good for the sake of feeling better about themselves isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“You have LeBron James on your team, and he’s changing light bulbs in the locker room instead of scoring baskets.” That’s what volunteers are doing by searching for soup kitchens and food banks when looking for volunteer opportunities—it’s often not an effective use of time, says Berg.
Hunger Free America encourages people to embrace their strengths, skills, and training for more efficient and effective volunteering. Five hours of accounting help to a small food pantry, for example, can do more than five months of boxing cans. The same applies to advocacy help, grant writing, or volunteer management.
As industry expert, Berg estimates that, nationwide, the soup kitchens, food pantries, food banks, and food rescue groups distribute $5 billion dollars of food. The federal government, on the other hand, distributes more than $100 billion a year—what all of these charities are doing, Berg estimates, is one-twentieth of what government programs accomplish.
While a vital component of the system, food banks and rescue groups aren’t solving the problem of hunger in America, they’re treating the result of a root cause. There is much more work to be done than physically distributing food in urban environments. Why have a lawyer pour soup beside line cooks when they could be providing vital legal support in just a couple hours of consulting?
In addition to opportunities listed on Hunger Free America’s volunteering opportunity search platform, hungervolunteer.org, there are other ways to help reach the hungry besides kitchen and pantry work. Supporting organizations that are working to solve the root causes of hunger in New York City, like low-paying jobs and lack of jobs, can be a more useful investment of time:
Organizations throughout New York City and beyond are in need of a variety of tasks year round, not just during the holidays. Charities often have the same needs as for-profits businesses, without the adequate funding. Reach out to offer your time to organizations in an effective way—doing what you do best.
And to be clear, the last thing we are suggesting is that you don’t volunteer. However, when you volunteer, check to see how you can do so most effectively—send a resume or your LinkedIn profile and offer to do a variety of tasks that match your skillset. If serving food and soup makes you feel good, go ahead and do it—it is still a kind act. However, parachuting in and out when many charitable organizations need your help and skills all year round can be problematic.