From Savior to Servant: 4 Ways for Philanthropists To Avoid the "Savior Complex"

Servant philanthropists are committed to one core belief: that helping means working with, not for, those pursuing a more stable life.


Every year between October and January, nonprofit organizations prepare for the flood of interest from well-meaning community members seeking opportunities to volunteer, write a check or simply engage in the concept of "giving back." There are a million ways nonprofits can host heart-warming projects and events, but this often requires the organization to sacrifice a little (or a lot) of its commitment to dignified service to make the experience "worth it" for the generous, privileged supporter.

The Danger Of "Warm Fuzzies"

In the U.S., one aspect of our concept of charity has become so embedded in our culture that it's now unspoken but universally agreed-upon conventional wisdom:

We must make the donor feel warm and fuzzy at all costs.

Nonprofits and non-government organizations can't survive without the generosity of those who choose to prioritize our missions. Yet, it's important to understand the negative consequences of giving that's driven by a savior complex, a psychological construct that involves a strong desire to rescue others from their challenges, often as a means of elevating one's own self-worth. In the context of charitable giving, this can result in a desire to manipulate the recipients of aid, rather than partnering with them in their pursuit of solutions.

Charitable giving that's driven by a savior complex is characterized by a lack of empathy or understanding of the recipients' experiences and actions that are intended to make the giver feel good rather than make the recipient's life better. For example, some forms of charitable giving involve taking photos with beneficiaries or expecting emotional reactions that demonstrate their appreciation. These types of interactions can be deeply dehumanizing and can leave recipients feeling like they are being reduced to mere props in the giver's quest for self-aggrandizement.

The performance of gratitude requires a sacrifice of dignity that furthers the harm experienced by individuals and families struggling to regain a sense of independence. I will never forget the holiday party hosted by a corporate supporter that included a fancy meal, fun games and gift giving. It was all going well until the hosts began recording video and demanded that the children open gifts for everyone's enjoyment. As parents stood by experiencing the mixed feelings of watching their children's joy while knowing that they were not the ones to elicit those emotions, I vowed to set boundaries in the future—the same kinds of boundaries I would want respected in my own life.

Four Ways To Avoid Becoming A "Savior Philanthropist":

1. Listen more than you speak.

First, recognize that people receiving social support have gifts, assets and ideas about how best to address their challenges. Seek understanding by asking thoughtful questions about the systems and circumstances that have contributed to people's experiences, and explore their insights about how these factors could be mitigated.

Second, whether giving locally or globally, be mindful of cultural distinctions and respect the beliefs and practices of the communities you aim to help. Cognitive biases (especially the one that fools us into believing "when we've seen one, we've seen them all") can compel us to suggest solutions without understanding the challenges individuals are facing. This is the point at which good intentions become harmful behaviors.

2. Don't expect a performance.

This notion bucks convention, but I believe giving should never oblige those on the receiving end to perform gratitude for donors. This expectation imposes a sacrifice of personal dignity in exchange for support. Further, do not use the misfortune of others to inspire gratitude for your own good fortune. Instead, seek to understand the causes of inequity and look for ways to serve as a willing advocate. For example, don't bring your kids to volunteer at a soup kitchen so they can count their blessings. Instead, teach them to seek common ground with those they serve and engage with respect.

3. Be open and honest about your goals.

It's always best to thoroughly understand the organization you're considering supporting. This includes understanding its mission, programs and impact, as well as financial and governance practices. Most importantly, learn the organization's values and recognize that these are essential to its work. Instead of expecting the organization to accommodate your worldview, be open to learning about theirs, or continue searching for a better-aligned organization to support.

This legwork lets you be transparent about your philanthropic aspirations, including how you envision your contribution being used. This helps build trust on the part of the organization and enables it to hold you accountable for your actions as a key partner.

4. Understand that your money doesn't make you an expert.

To put it simply, don't approach charitable giving as a way to "rescue" others, and don't assume you have the answers to complex social issues. This kind of thinking reinforces the deeply inequitable power dynamic between donor and beneficiary and does more damage than good by further marginalizing those seeking support. Instead, work toward developing relationships rooted in equity by focusing on shared human experiences.

Additionally, don't expect your money to buy you a seat at the table where decisions are made about the organization's direction. If you desire more involvement, seek a volunteer role rather than expecting prominent leadership positions or increased decision-making authority as a result of your investment.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, servant philanthropists are committed to one core belief: that helping means working with, not for, those pursuing a more stable life. Effective organizations, and those who invest in them, partner with the people they serve to understand and address their needs. If your goal is to make the kind of impact that changes conditions, start by taking a back seat and leaving the discussion open for those with the lived experience to set a course toward real solutions.

When you leave the desire for gratitude and the fallacy that affluence implies authority out of the equation, you'll find that the rewards of authentic service are exponential — for you and for those you seek to impact.

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