The Problem with Activism

Why Caring Just Isn’t Enough

In today’s connected world, we are painfully aware of the issues we face as a global community. From trafficking to child soldiers, natural disasters to dictatorial revolution… the plight of the few is instantly known by many.

It’s easier than ever to get involved. Online donation services, mobile donation platforms, sustainable or fair trade products, and volunteerism sites like the excellent Hands On Network remove friction from getting time and resources to those who need it the most.

So, if knowledge and access are available at unprecedented levels, why are some of our biggest charities seeing sharp declines in giving?

The unfortunate truth: many of those most able to help have fallen into a restless pattern of slacktivism that is preventing real good from getting done.

Split Focus Yields Split Action.

We have a split focus and a split attention. We’re constantly barraged by causes and campaigns to give time, attention and money. How do we choose what deserves our attention, and of course, our money?

Combine a society consumed with “busy” and the (perception of a) down economy and it becomes “too hard” to volunteer, and “too much” to give. Nonprofit marketers have pivoted to find ways to make acts of charity easy, but many have diluted it too far:

Let’s be honest: what good does this really do?

Adding an icon to your Facebook profile or pushing “Like” is easy. You feel good for helping out and for spreading the word. (I’d chalk this up to the pleasure center of our brain, getting a little chemical “ding!” every time we successfully do something visceral on the web)

Let’s be honest: placing an equality icon to your social stream is largely unheard by congressional officials. The reality is, it’s not that much more difficult to make your voice heard.Voting your opinions, writing a passionate letter: these actions take little time and yield actual results.

Facebook Likes Don’t Keep the Lights On.

A recent UNICEF ad sums up this point beautifully:

This ad generates synapse-popping cognitive dissonance in our slacktivist brains.

This powerful ad explains the need while reinforcing the actual impact a single person can make. They’ve also created some video spots that highlight the growing issue of slacktivism.

The real problem: helping people is a longterm commitment. It’s a major investment of time and energy to give someone the ability to stand on their own two feet and sustain themselves. Give a man a fish…

Rather than giving a fish, could we just give those less fortunate something tangible? What about a pair of shoes?

The One for One Model is Broken.

The simple promise offered by Tom’s Shoes (and other similar vendors): buy our product, and we’ll give one to someone in need.

On the surface, this simple business model is incredibly powerful: I, a modern-day consumer, can use my purchasing decisions as declarations of activism.

You know the old saying about too good to be true?

Imagine for a moment that you’re a Peruvian shoemaker. Every day, you work with locally tanned leather to create high quality shoes and belts for your village. Then, imagine that one day you wake up to find a Tom’s Shoes booth down the street, handing out free shoes to your community.

How would this make you feel?

In a single day, an organization intent on doing good inadvertently ruins a local business in the process. This sort of scenario is exactly what modern social entrepreneurs are looking to avoid. 

One such company (and one dear and near to me here in Nashville) is Nisolo Shoes. Nisolo empowers Peruvian leather craftsmen to create their goods and gives them a global platform to sell them from. The profits feed back into the local businesses, creating a spinning wheel of sustainability and growth.

Perpetuating Poverty By Giving.

After the Haitian earthquake of 2010, the US government subsidized large amounts of rice, Haiti’s staple carbohydrate, to local communities. In the short term, it helped stabilize families and prevented hunger issues on top of the natural disaster recovery.

Unfortunately, the longterm ramifications came to light shortly thereafter. Local markets and farmers began to suffer, as no one needed the abundant rice crops they began to produce. Haiti began calling for aid organizations and governments to stop subsidizing the country’s chief agricultural product:

…75 percent of the 440,000 metric tons of rice consumed in Haiti arrives from abroad…

How much more effective would those efforts have been if that rice was instead subsidized to local merchants who could have jumpstarted the local economy?

Handing Out Empowerment

At the core, slacktivism implies a dangerous attitude: that our time and attention is not worth sacrificing to give someone a leg up. In thinking this way, we both condescend those we’re helping and give ourselves an ego boost.

True social enterprise empowers and educates those less fortunate than us. By empowering the third world, we assert that they’re on the same playing field as the rest of the world. Ultimately, this is doling out a measure of dignity rather than a handout.


The World Is Not Ours to Save – A wakeup call to the evangelical community that activism is only powerful under the direction of God himself. From the description: 

[A] pilgrimage from causes to calling shows how to ground an enduring, kingdom-oriented activism in the stillness of vocation rather than in the anxiety of the world’s brokenness.

When Helping Hurts – This book wrecks the traditional notion of a short term relief trip, focusing instead on how to create lasting change in communities while leaving behind a minimal footprint.

Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose – The manual on running a service-focused business from the founder of Zappos. Tony Hsieh focuses on a positive company culture that translates effortlessly into running a responsible social enterprise.

Q: Ideas for the Common Good – An organization which focuses on engaging faith in culture. Their conferences and articles have been a catalyst for ways to sustainably improve the good we do in the world.

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