09/29/2009 05:09 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What is Work? Saving the World Without Killing Yourself

Good news! You've found a job helping the world in a crucial, even life-saving way.

Bad news: You're working so hard for so little that you're about to burn out.

"Is there a way for me to help others without killing myself?" you ask.

Absolutely, says Andrew Zolli.

Zolli (rhymes with dolly) is the curator of PopTech, an annual conference that helps social entrepreneurs find better ways to do good things.

It's a change that may require some mental rewiring for folks over 40.

"The way we thought about aid - of doing in the world - was based on a gift economy," Zolli explains, in a call from his office in Brooklyn.

In the gift model of aid, let's say, The Red Cross needs blood. The public donates - gifts - their blood. At which point, everyone's a bit tapped out, emotionally, financially, physically. But in time, things return to normal - until the next disaster.

So far, so 501(c)3.

But the gift economy of giving can lead to a Pandora's box of good will gone awry.

Givers can donate something that's not needed - a phenomenon Zolli quotes, per a friend, as "the tractor in the desert" problem.

And when you attempt to do the crisis-sprint of giving to counter a large, long-term problem, burn-out becomes the word of the day.

The idea of "gifting" the hard, even dangerous work of cleaning up the world's water, or reducing its rate of disease, does a disservice to aid workers. On one hand, it implies, aid workers should be content to earn little and work super-human hours (hey, it's a gift!).

On the flip side, it implies that for the "gift" to work, it needs to eradicate the problem NOW. This can lead to what Zolli calls, "The Warrior culture," in which workers attack a Big Problem in extreme ways, exhausting themselves.

Social entrepreneurs under 40, by contrast, see world-betterment as a kind of corporation - with a product, a service, a market and real people working for it. Help must be self-reliant as opposed to relying, Blanche DuBois style, "on the kindness of strangers."

"Help has to be scalable, replicable and economically self-sustaining," Zolli says. "We need sustainable solutions that sustain the people who deliver them as well as the people who receive them."

To this end, PopTech has started a scholarship program to fund employee projects of personal passion. The money - and the support - are designed to encourage staffers to take time for themselves and to promote what Zolli calls, "the care and feeding of our souls."

When it comes to tackling large, ongoing problems, collaboration has replaced the warrior model in the new Help order.

Zolli describes a project in South Africa in which PopTech, frog design, MTN South Africa and others collaborated on a vast public health challenge.

The problem: A few doctors were responsible for diagnosing, counseling and treating hundreds of thousands of patients in an area with huge rates of HIV and TB.

The solution: A mobile phone app that allowed patients to be tested, counseled and treated in a much faster, private and efficient way.

"None of these organizations could have discovered this solution on their own," he says.

For those of us who'd like to start or test-drive a socially entrepreneurial project, Zolli advises:

Embrace design as a tool - not just as a feel-good or look-good.

In South Africa, the team's ability to design a mobile phone application for HIV testing and counseling wasn't merely a cool use of technology. It addressed the core problem, upping calls to testing centers by 100% and allowing doctors to treat three times as many patients.

Look for underleveraged assets in the community.

93% of the population in need of better medical care in South Africa had access to cell phones, Zolli says. But no one had thought to combine health-care information with those phones.

Attend one conference a year in a field you know nothing about.

"Learning another field's language is the first step to collaborating with it," Zolli says.

If you're a designer, attend a medical conference. If you're a doctor, test drive a social media conference.

Design systems with the community as opposed to for the community.

The team addressing the doctor/patient imbalance included doctors and nurses on the front-lines of the problem as well as digital designers and Big Thinkers.

Embrace your failures.

"The reality is that the 'save the world' instinct, the entrepreneurial instinct and the artistic instinct are the same thing," Zolli says. "You have to believe in a future the includes things that are not around."

Africa's mobile phone project took 3 1/2 years of trial, error, discovery and redesign. Those errors were a critical part of the project's ultimate success.

It's powerful work advice for those of us in other fields as well.

"If you're not failing," Zolli says, "you're not digging in interesting places."