Communal Spirit: Any Giving is Good Enough


Last week I blogged about the importance of volunteering, of giving yourself to the service of others.  I specifically stressed that your experience would be best if you chose to give back in a way that worked best for you. For some, that would mean stuffing envelopes for their local church, for others, offering their plumbing services for free to help stop wasted water. There are many different ways to volunteer, but all are equally important, impactful and personally fulfilling.

I subscribe to GOOD‘s daily email at work, and so was pleased to see a link to a graphic design group that “gives away half its work for free” in the name of the common good. A great idea, and a rallying article….until I got to the following:

Funny enough, many designers are actively looking for an opportunity to use their talents to give back, learn something new, and grow as a maker. Cleaning up a beach doesn’t provide that kind of experience.

And then…further on:

Anyone can clean up a beach. That’s a simple task, and people have been doing it for years. Sure, we can continue to define ‘service’ and ‘volunteerism’ in that way, but wouldn’t a more productive question be ‘how can we ensure that beaches never get dirty again?’ That is a big question, but it is one that can be answered by leveraging the unique talents each of us bring to the table. This isn’t a new idea—it’s actually a movement, the idea of skills-based volunteering.

I was stunned. All the excitement I had for what this guy was doing literally drained out of me. How incredibly hypocritical to essentially be putting out a global call to action, while literally alienating most of the world’s population, those who don’t have professional skills to contribute. The worst part was that he didn’t NEED to throw another form of volunteering under the bus in order to make his very valid point. He didn’t even need to mention another form of volunteering – it was completely irrelevant. I suddenly couldn’t help but regard this do-gooder as just another person more concerned with getting recognition for their good deeds to humanity than actually thinking about humanity as a whole.

I left this (much nicer than the above) comment on the original article’s page:

First, I want to start by saying [edited to remove company name] is a great concept and your intentions are obviously coming from the right place! As a graphic designer who does both for-pay jobs and pro-bono, I agree with and applaud you.

The thing is….I also work for an environmentally-based non-profit, and one of the many volunteer opportunities we invite people to participate in is, specifically – cleaning up a beach (one of our preserves, in fact). You mentioned this simple form of volunteering *twice* in your article, and in a very flippant tone that suggested it was nowhere near as important or personally rewarding as what you were doing. While I agree with you that people should offer up their professional skills for the good of others, I do not agree with discounting the admittedly simple, but no less important, act of volunteering to clean up a beach.

I just think your message could have been much stronger without disparaging a different, but no less impactful, form of giving back.

And as of press time, no reply (although I did have others agreeing with me). I read through the other comments and noticed that the only ones that got replies from the designer were the cookie-cutter “great job, man, way to go – we think you’re the greatest!” One older lady seemed confused as to why her volunteer clerical work wasn’t note-worthy, since it was the best she could offer at her age: “I have only very low level talents,” she commented. No reply. Another commenter tried to point out that giving away 90% of what you earn is comparable to small-scale farming, which may not be realistic for most. The designer replied that when he first started the company, he gave away 100%, and that now they do non-profit design work for farmers. Talk about missing the point!

When people express interest in volunteering for TILT, I have a handy questionnaire that I give them, to help determine their availability, interests and skills. Do I expect everyone who applies to be skilled in building bridges for our trails? No. Am I excited when people apply who are skilled in building bridges for our trails? Of course. Am I also excited when people apply who can do simple data entry? Yes, yes, yes! Everyone has something to give, and anyone can make a difference, whether it’s through professional services or simply picking up the trash they see on the side of the road, or the beach (or by not putting it there in the first place)!

[Edited to add: Check out this much better article on GOOD – “The New Giving Will Transform Philanthropy” – not THAT person/company really gets it!]

Photo of children enjoying a beach clean up from Rineen National School

3 responses to “Communal Spirit: Any Giving is Good Enough

  1. I completely agree with you. Little steps make a big differences. We are lucky enough to live in a beach town and every summer I am completely horrified to see all the trash that is just left. People come visit for a day and just LEAVE their things. I have never to buy my child sand toys due to the ones we pick up and as much of a holiday the 4th of July is the 5th is that much more because the whole family goes to the beach to try and make our small dent in the massive amount of junk and destruction people have left.

    • I hear ya! My house is located right where a paved road turns into a seasonal one, and when I go for walks down the seasonal one in the summer, I bring a plastic bag specifically for picking up all the random beer cans, etc that people feel the need to toss off their ATVs or out their car windows. Just ridiculous how disconnected people are from their trash.

      I love that you respond to the situation at your beach by 1. reusing the sand toys that are left behind and 2. making a family tradition out of July 5th trash pickup. Kids who are raised with such values will become adults with those same values!

  2. Also, I would like to add that I finally DID get a reply to my comment from the article’s author. Unfortunately, he answered with a non-apology apology: “I’m sorry you felt this way – the statement was not supposed to shut down cleaning up a beach, it was more intending to say that we can each use our own skills that make us unique to give back, too.”

    To which I replied: “To be quite honest, your choice of wording does make it seem that you were belittling cleaning up a beach. Phrases like “Funny enough, many designers are actively looking for an opportunity to use their talents to give back, learn something new, and grow as a maker. Cleaning up a beach doesn’t provide that kind of experience” and “Anyone can clean up a beach” don’t come across as you praising those who clean beaches while also suggesting that there are other ways to give – it just implies that what you’re doing is better.

    My advice is that, in the future, if you truly want to say that we should all use our unique skills to give back, then simply talk about the good things you’re doing in a way that doesn’t require shutting down what the “simple tasks” that other “people have been doing it for years.”

    Maybe he’ll finally get it?…but I’m guessing, probably not.

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