September 20, 2010 Is the “Common Good” good for you?

By Daniela Papi, Director and Founder of PEPY, a hybrid social venture serving the people of Cambodia

When you work in the social sector, some are quick to think you are a martyr, sacrificing for others. People sometimes talk about a concern for the “Common Good” as if it were contradictory to a concern for “Our Own Personal Good.” But the two are not mutually exclusive, or at least, they don’t have to be.

We named the organization we founded in Cambodia “Protect the Earth. Protect Yourself.” (PEPY for short). The name alludes to the relationship between common and individual goods – the environment is a common good we need to protect in order to ensure our own safety. By protecting the earth, we are thereby protecting ourselves. Telling a Cambodian family to reduce pesticides to protect the common good of our global environment bears little weight if that family is struggling to feed its own children. When they learn that the poisons they are putting into the ground enter their water source and harm their children’s health, the issue becomes a much more compelling reason to do less environmental damage.

Similarly, working in a job where you are helping others can also be a self-serving choice – not just in the general sense of “making the world a better place,” but also in a way that more directly benefits yourself. In my opinion, the best joys you can receive in life come from helping others to succeed and reach their own potential. That is my aim through my job, not only because it is good for the world, but also because it is good for ME. My favorite quote is by Harold Thurman and it says:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and then go out and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Doing a job that you love is indeed like coming alive, like entering Narnia, like turning on a switch that makes you wake up in the morning eager to be part of a day spent creating something in which you believe. There is no substitute for loving what you do – you can’t fake it, to the world or to yourself. Do you wake up eager to begin the day, itching to make change and move forward, or secretly wishing for a snow day? By doing what makes you come alive, and finding ways to spread that passion you have for your work, you are adding to the common good: there is nothing more motivating than seeing someone come alive.

The organization I run has a branch offering educational, adventure, and service-learning tours, and recently I have been approached by a few people who are interested in entering this business sector. They typically start by asking about the business model and wondering how they can increase their income from tours, and my advice is always to focus on impact over income. If we continue to hold income as the measuring stick for success with and as the aim of our companies, we will continue to breed more transparency-resistant and contagious strains of damaging business models. If, instead, we hold impact as our gold standard and strive to be the best at what we do, there is no question that income will follow. In a world where “green initiatives” and “CSR” are becoming marketing techniques, we spend too much time trying to “craft our story” and describe our impact and not nearly enough time accomplishing it. Once again, there is no substitute for doing good: if you are working towards it, others will see that and follow along.

Let’s do what we love and focus on doing it the best way that we can – the people, the funds, and the addition to the common good will indeed follow.

Author: Daniela Papi

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