Bill Becker

Performative Helping

For a long time, I have wondered about individuals and organizations doing things for their particular causes. Did they really do it to help, or was it more driven to make them feel better about themselves?

If you are inherently a bad person but volunteer at a soup kitchen or help collect winter coats for a shelter, should you get credit? Maybe people don’t want credit and, in their hearts, just want to do something nice. Could it also be performative helping? Does it even matter? If people are helping, it’s not a bad thing.

Side note: Performative helping, also known as performative activism, is activism done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause.

The desire to do good work is often multi-faceted. We are drawn to helping, at least in part, because of their performative value. We want to be known as people who do good things. You could argue that those being helped don’t care about the reason; they are just thankful for the end result, right?

The epitome of performative helping has to be Mr. Beast (aka Jimmy Donaldson). Mr. Beast has one of the most popular YouTube channels in the world and a lot of the content he uploads is good deeds. The New York Times just did a profile on Donaldson through the lens of performative helping. 

In the same way, businesses market services in order to make your life easier, some non-profits specialize in helping individuals and groups “do good” easier. That in itself isn’t necessarily bad, right? I mean, people like to do things with like-minded people.

The reality is that much of service can be an empty gesture when the real fix is systemic. I don’t mean to say that you didn’t make someone’s life better for a moment, just that there has to be a way to reduce suffering in a more long-term way. That’s what I want to do, harness that performative helping into actually ending long-term homelessness! 

It’s a fine line, and the opportunity to offend those who do help in their own way is out there, but implementing real change is just too important.

I donate each month to several organizations that provide free lunches, showers, laundry services, etc., to unhoused people, mainly to keep up with these innovative solutions. 

Speaking of free lunches, here’s a great example of what I am talking about.

A local organizer in Arkansas learned that many graduating seniors had unpaid school lunch debt. In most school systems, unpaid lunches mean you don’t graduate. So he organized a fundraiser and raised enough money to pay off all of the seniors’ lunch debts. It’s a good thing, right?

But you know what would be better? Just provide free school lunches for everyone.

Imagine if every school superintendent in each state met with their state representative, demanded a meeting with the governor and legislature, and demanded funding for free meals for all students. It would be a hard campaign. But I believe it would be a bi-partisan issue. It’s for the kids! It would be the right and most impactful thing to do, far more than the piecemeal aid we accomplish and are often lauded for.

Keep doing the wonderful work you are doing. Provide service and aid. But also take a moment to step back and consider systemic solutions. What if we could crowdsource a real remedy to certain aspects of human suffering? Think of it this way, when (not if) we come up with a remedy to finally end long-term homelessness, the resulting publicity will be massive. It’s not the reason most of us are doing it, but by default, it will be the gold standard of performative helping.