Volunteerism at Harvard confuses me. On the one hand, I’m moved by the hundreds of Harvard students who so readily dedicate themselves to bettering the lives of others. The Phillips Brooks House Association represents the best aspects of Harvard, serving as a conduit for public service as well as a bridge between Harvard, Cambridge, and the Greater Boston community.
Yet I’m skeptical of how much good organizations like the PBHA can do. Most PBHA programs lack a quantitative analysis of their impacts; in other words, we have no idea how much long-term good (if any) they generate. But more importantly, PBHA seems focused on pushing Harvard students to volunteer their time instead of encouraging them to offer their most valuable resource to those in need—their money. The world would be much better off if well-to-do students pledged to give 15 percent of their summer or future full-time incomes to an effective charity, like Doctors Without Borders or the Against Malaria Foundation, instead of spending their summers volunteering at a foreign orphanage where their inexperience may harm—not bolster—the orphanage’s capacity for good.
We, the part-time volunteers that comprise Harvard’s charitable organizations, live contradictory lives. We spend our dinners railing against global inequality. We spend our afternoons volunteering to address these inequalities. We spend our vacations attempting to convince our friends and family members and even online strangers of the existence of these inequalities. And yet, more than any other demographic, we embody these inequalities.
Materialism and cognitive dissonance: These are Harvard’s hallmarks. We spend our money on needlessly expensive arctic jackets. We buy shoes we rarely wear (and certainly don’t need). We drink overrated coffee, shop at overpriced grocery stores, and subscribe to a horde of services we seldom need or use. Simply put, our student body represents America’s inequality at its finest.
My disdain for civilian excess is partly the Army’s fault. Uncle Sam’s short temper taught me to pack practically and forced me to distinguish between my material waste and the few possessions I need and love. My distaste for materialism is also partly the fault of my Salvadoran mother, who never let an opportunity pass to remind me of my American privilege. I never hid in a basement for days on end waiting for the government shelling to stop. I did not spend my childhood fleeing communist guerrillas or state-sponsored death squads. I never endured siege-induced hunger, and, more likely than not, neither did you.
And that’s exactly the point; by virtue of reading this at Harvard on your personal computer, you are incredibly wealthy relative to so many others. I am not denouncing your wealth or asking you to feel ashamed; guilt is a worthless emotion that does nothing to help those in need. What I am asking you is to consider how much good your money could do. Your money could make the difference in Eastern Ghouta as Doctors Without Borders runs desperately low on medical equipment. Your money could help Give Directly stimulate East African business. Your money could support Give Well, an organization that researches, rates, and funds the world’s most effective charities. Where your money goes is more than a matter of budgeting—in some cases, it’s a matter of life or death.
This is not to vindicate those who shield their selfish pursuits behind the banner of “Earning to Give.” Donating a few million dollars to an underperforming school does no good if your investment bank helped create Mexico’s worst housing crisis or your company supplies Saudi Arabia with missiles to decimate Yemeni villages. A donation isn’t a secular indulgence with which you can balance against your continued wrongdoings. How you make your money is just as—if not more—important as how you decide to spend it.
I’m not asking that you pursue an ascetic life of religious isolation. Buy that concert ticket. Go on that spontaneous weekend trip to New York. Forge the treasured memories that make life worth living. However, as summer approaches with its paid internships or, in the case of the Class of 2018, full-time work, consider how much good your money could do in the right hands. Instead of giving to the Senior Gift, find an effective charity. Donate anonymously. Save a life. Make an impact that actually matters.
We are frequently told to live within our means. Yet if humanity is to overcome climate change, disease, and global poverty, the privileged of our generation must not just live within our means—we must also live beneath them. Don’t just share articles decrying the rise of global economic inequality; use your own wealth to help those in need. Don’t just rave about the lack of social progress on Facebook; pledge to do something helpful with your money instead.
Ultimately, true goodness isn’t a matter of reading the right book, giving a few hours to a local nonprofit, or publicizing your “wokeness” on social media. Your moral status (or lack of) simply comes down to where your money comes from and where you spend it. So the next time you find yourself questioning whether you’ve lived a moral life, open up your checkbook. The numbers won’t lie.
Nathan L. Williams ’18 is a Government concentrator living in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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