Let's Deemphasize People's Motivations Behind Advocacy and Volunteering

As a high school student, I have often heard accusatory comments that so-and-so is only involved with social activism or a service project because "she wants to put it on her resume" or "he just wants to gain admission to college."
09/05/2014 10:31 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

During the MTV Video Music Awards (VMA) on August 24, 2014, Miley Cyrus allowed a 22-year-old homeless runaway man, Jesse Helt, to accept an award on her behalf. In his speech, Jesse Helt called attention to the widespread youth homelessness beleaguering the United States. Subsequently, Miley Cyrus posted tweets encouraging "the start of a national conversation about youth homelessness and how to end it," and bemoaning the "inaction" of people who looked down upon the homeless.

Yet, despite the fact that Miley Cyrus' advocacy was able to raise awareness of youth homelessness and drive donations, her activism sparked a debate about the driving forces behind celebrity activism for social justice and philanthropic causes, including a Room for Debate discussion in the New York Times. Some commenters implied that Miley Cyrus was attempting to whitewash the "bad girl" image that she created during the 2013 VMAs. Others accused her of "exhibitionism" and self-centeredness. Similarly, celebrity involvement with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been questioned and criticized for being "self-congratulatory" and occurring not out of a desire to find the panacea for ALS, but out of typical celebrity self-promotion.

This fixation on the motivations behind celebrity activism for social justice causes reminds me of the complaints I often hear about the reasons behind student participation in community service initiatives. As a high school student, I have often heard accusatory comments that so-and-so is only involved with social activism or a service project because "she wants to put it on her resume" or "he just wants to gain admission to college."

Yes, I do think that committing to service because of deep interest in a cause and a sense of social responsibility is wonderful, and should set a positive precedent worth following. But I do feel that while some students may delve into volunteering because they believe a resume burnished with service activities will secure their competitiveness in the college rat race, the skills, connections, and memories they acquire from their service experiences will transcend the comparatively hollow job descriptions and volunteer hours they key into their activities resumes. Moreover, the sustainable change that any volunteer has the potential to make in the lives of others should be enough to countervail any questionable motivation.

And I think that's where this criticism misses the point -- that not all volunteerism fueled by initial motivations to embellish a resume necessarily translates to empty volunteer hours devoid of tangible impact. No matter what incentivizes people to get involved with advocacy and volunteerism, every act of giving and every hour devoted to service can and will effect positive change that flows both ways.

I feel like it shouldn't be a concern whether someone is tutoring low-income students math out of a desire to "look good" or "stand out" -- what does matter is that the tutored students are empowered with valuable quantitative and problem-solving skills at the end of the tutoring experience, skills that they hopefully will make good use of for the rest of their lives. What also matters is what the tutor gets out of this experience -- namely effective teaching skills, a sense of fulfillment, and ideally a lifelong love of giving back and a passion for a cause. And if the quest for an "impressive-sounding" resume is what provides the impetus to securing these twofold boons of service learning, then so be it.

Of course, we should never stop trying to instill in others a passion to serve the community and tackle critical social problems. We should also never stop encouraging people who go into service projects genuinely caring about the issues they fight for to continue their exceptional work. Last year, I started directing global outreach initiatives for VolunTEEN Nation -- an organization encouraging youth to improve the world through grants, resources, and internship opportunities -- because I wanted to inspire people to act for causes close to their heart, and connect them to a dynamic platform through which they could explore their passions.

I also wanted prospective volunteers who didn't have a clear-cut idea of what cause they wanted to get involved with to find service opportunities that could potentially galvanize their interests. By making resources and ideas accessible to youth regardless of what impels them to volunteer, VolunTEEN Nation spreads the spirit of volunteerism and engenders a generation of global citizens equipped for lifelong service. Isn't that what volunteerism should be about?

So I urge you to deemphasize and not complain about people's motivations behind acts of advocacy and volunteerism, and instead encourage others to participate and lead service projects regardless of what drives them. I hope that one day, we can move past criticizing people for taking on service projects or advocating for a cause for supposedly self-centered reasons, and shift the focus on how they can make and are making a difference in the lives of others.