Selfish Altruism

I’ll be attending the SEA Summit in April, and one of the projects they will be showcasing is a “street newspaper” called The Contributor. Tasha Lemley, founding Executive Director, wrote a post about how she started this social enterprise for selfish reasons:

The little street newspaper hobby was an outlet that combined my skills and passions and was an inlet into journalism—as well as an attempt to fit in, to earn my place as a friend of our homeless community.

When I worked for the Volunteer Center as Director of Youth Services, I interviewed a lot of young people looking for volunteer positions. When I asked them what they wanted to do, they often didn’t know. When I asked them why the wanted to volunteer, they often said they just wanted to help people. I always applauded this motive, but asked them to dig a bit deeper into what they liked to do, and what they wanted to get out of it beyond a good feeling.

My volunteerism at the time was primarily in two avenues: DJ and Music Staff at radio station WXDU and as a Board member at a non-profit professional association. Both of these came out of self-interest. WXDU gave me access to a bunch of new music, a connection to my favorite part of college, and a built-in social network when I moved to Durham. My Board service gave me a nice bullet for my resume, a built-in professional network, and a lot of opportunities for professional development. I’ve always been a big fan of enlightened self-interest, and think that rather than taking away from the “purity” of a desire to help others, instead it strengthens it and helps reinforce your resolve during the tough/boring/i-want-to-quit times. Adding self-interest to altruism makes that altruism more sustainable over the long term, in my opinion and personal experience.

It seems to have worked for Tasha. Here she talks about “the impact of an excuse”:

Originally, our goal only had two parts: to create a quality publication with information about homelessness and poverty and to use that product to create a source of income for individuals who had experienced homelessness.

The third part of our mission revealed itself to us over time.

This is the most inspirational aspect to me and I believe this is where the greatest impact of our work lies.

Not the publication: the insightful journalism, the gritty stories about and by those affected by homelessness. And not the paper sales—even though 50% of our vendors are no longer homeless thanks, in part, to that significant combined income.

Our enterprise created a powerful excuse to dialogue. This face-to-face interaction between people who have experienced homelessness and those who have not is consistently changing lives on both sides of the socio-economic divide. Real friendships are being formed and Tennesseans are collaborating and inserting themselves into each other’s lives—meeting people who work where they live and who eat on the same sidewalks that their favorite restaurants share

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