Money Martyrdom – I’m Not Buying It

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One of the wonderful things about change work and the sustainability movement is meeting so many people who are willing to give.

I have been a giver, and also a grateful receiver of the gifts of other givers. I wouldn’t be who I am today without their time, their willingness to share their knowledge and their mentoring.

But there is a flip side to change work – the frustrations, the defeats, the burnout, as I’ve previously discussed in ‘Be The Change – But Not All Of It! I deeply empathise with those who’ve experienced this, as I’ve been there, done that. No doubt many of you have too.

And then there’s the personal financial sacrifice.

Often the work needed to shift the status quo, particularly in the early stages of a shift such as getting climate change into mainstream debate, equates with no means of generating an income from doing this work.

It’s not until the hearts-and-minds-changers, and the practitioners plugging away on small but working prototypes, have built enough momentum to move things to a tipping point that feasible ways of creating an income emerge.

You would have struggled to get paid gigs doing carbon footprinting ten years ago.

Right now, I can think of three friends of mine (and no doubt you can think of many people you know too) who have spent a huge amount of time making a contribution to the greater good, including:

  • one who took over running a Facebook page that helps reunite lost pets and owners, who spends hours and hours of her time contributing to this community service, utilised by almost 5,000 people
  • another who is running a high profile campaign in the UK, but because its goals are for the public interest (and because it’s not the kind of work that will attract funding easily), he is earning far less than what he would be if he was working in business as usual, rather than trying to change BAU for the wider societal interest
  • one who was teetering on the edge of personal bankruptcy after donating thousands of hours of time to community education over many years, time that could have been used to undertaken income-generating, BAU consultancy work

Is it their choice? Absolutely.

Although when people are intrinsically motivated by their values, they often don’t have a choice. They simply can’t not do the work they are called to do.

Do they lack the entrepreneurship nous and business skills to monetise their work?

Possibly, but not always – sometimes it’s because they are too far ahead of the pack and the demand for their expertise is not yet there, or their work is challenging something that will prevent them from being able to go down this path. Sometimes they don’t have the know-how, or access to the mentoring they need.

Regardless, when my ‘lost pets’ Facebook friend was invited to come to the city from her country home to be interviewed about her work, she needed her car brakes fixed to make the trip.

Now, why isn’t there some way for her to ‘withdraw’ on the social contribution she ‘deposits’ so that she could get this service she needed?

These examples are replicated hundreds of thousands of times across our societies, and our societies are carried on the backs of volunteers – life as we know it would not only be less pleasant, but would likely cease to function without them.

The importance of the voluntary sector is best illustrated by the fact that many larger non profits now have ‘volunteer managers’ – people who are paid to manage the unpaid. This is not to disparage people in these positions, which are necessary because there are people who want to volunteer and they do need to be managed so that their energy is channeled – but it’s still an ironic sign of the times.

In recent years, we’ve begun to see new forms of social enterprise and social entrepreneurship emerging, which is demonstrating new models and possibilities for the nonprofit/voluntary sector.

But for the vast majority of people out there who are volunteering, it’s about time we found ways of placing some kind of value – monetary or otherwise – on work that is donated into the community so that the individuals who donate it can use to meet their needs.

Time banks and local currencies are just two of the methods that can go some way to redressing this situation, but they are transacted from one person to another, either directly or indirectly, not between an individual and ‘the commons’.

However money, or any type of ‘receive’ in exchange for ‘give’, remains a contentious topic in the environment/social change/sustainability movements, and some folks within them seem to have an almost ideological opposition to money.

cartoon with dollar bill on psychiatrist's couch asking 'how would you feel if everyone said you were the root of all evil?'

The ‘Money Martyrdom’ Playlist

Here are the Top 5 reasons for ‘money martyrdom’ I’ve encountered in the sustainability movement – many of the reasons are closely related, or overlap:

#1 – perception that money is part of ‘the system’ they are working to change

Those working for social change sometimes have an aversion to money, as ‘lack of money’ and ‘resourcing’ are typically the cited (and constant) barriers to doing anything worthwhile that contributes to the integrity of living systems and the wellbeing of people.

Money is seen as the agent of ‘business as usual’, a necessary evil that one must use, but should not accept, invite or desire.

What about approaching money as a technology for facilitating exchange? Any technology can be used for good or ill. So use it mindfully, rather than hamstringing yourself from doing the work and living your life by trying to opt-out of the system.

#2 – belief that doing something for money somehow diminishes the value of the work

Oh, it’s so mercenary, isn’t it? How could one possibly expect, let alone accept, any kind of personal reward for work we do out of the goodness of our hearts? Doesn’t that make us no better than…them? 

This is the same mentality that gave rise to scathing criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement – those protesting the system, but using the products and the bathroom facilities of multinational corporations. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi ripped this one to bits in a recent article:

OWS (was accused of being) “Starbucks-sipping, Levi’s-clad, iPhone-clutching protesters denouncing corporate America even as they weep for Steve Jobs, corporate titan, billionaire eight times over.”

Apparently, because Goldman and Citibank are corporations, no protester can ever consume a corporate product – not jeans, not cellphones and definitely not coffee – if he also wants to complain about tax money going to pay off some billionaire banker’s bets against his own crappy mortgages.

Let’s not be too precious, people. That brain you apply to resolving the problems and injustices of the world? It needs fuel. Those hands need tools to give the work effect. The spirit and physical form that drives it all needs to be kept safe.

There’s a happy medium between hedonistic excess and money-grubbing, and self-imposed sacrifice.

#3 – fear of being seen as compromising one’s ‘noble selflessness’

You’ve developed knowledge of, or produced something incredibly useful for people, but you can’t possibly put a price on it because that would be undermining the ethos of what you’re saying – especially if what you’re saying is that money isn’t everything, and we need to change the world so that money doesn’t shape so much of what we do with our lives.

This is the same mindset that many artists and cultural creatives carry ie. it’s the work that matters, not money. Mark McGuiness of Lateral Action dismantled this one in his articles 7 Reasons Creative People Don’t Talk About Money and 4 Ways Money Can Support Your Creativity:

We live in a world obsessed with money, where human beings are treated according to their bank balance, not their intrinsic worth, and we instinctively revolt against this…(yet) from a creative perspective, the best thing about having money in the bank and your finances under control is not having to worry about money. It’s not a problem, and you are free to turn your mind to more inspiring subjects.

And if you’ve had the cheek to want to earn and spend money on not just necessities, but on fun? Tut, tut.

Choosing simplicity is wise. Choosing poverty is foolish.

Remembering you’re also on this earth to live and enjoy your life is vital.

#4 – reluctance to admit that money matters because of peer pressure to not care about money

The ‘peer pressure’ within these movements to ‘not care’ about money because ‘money should not be your motivation’ is misplaced, misguided and even dangerous.

You can sing the ‘money doesn’t matter’ tune for a while, but whether you like it or not, eventually it will. 

Circumstances change. Children come along. Health fails. Relationships break down. You get sick of existing on two minute noodles, and living in a cramped, crappy flat.

Define your goals, your purpose, live your meaning – use money to do this, where necessary. Make it your servant, not your master.

If you don’t want money to control you, be aware that a lack of money created by this mindset can also control you.

#5 – avoiding accusations of hypocrisy, and the guilt/trade off/justification game

Have you ever found yourself justifying something you’ve done, something you have, or something you’ve purchased? That’s you pre-empting the money (and subsequent carbon and consumption) guilt trips that we place on ourselves and others, so that we aren’t seen as conspicuous consumers.

‘I bought a new computer – but I’ve had my old one for years…’

‘I flew to x but it was for something I really had to be there for, and you know, I ride to work every day…’

The conversation dynamic becomes a moral high ground issue, and before you know it, some innocuous comment has you in danger of being cast as a hypocrite.

Conversely, if you pride yourself on being someone who ‘doesn’t need money’ and overly zealous about consumption, you become a caricature of self-denial and guilt, and that only reinforces to those who don’t identify as part of the sustainability movement that this is not something they want to be part of.

Yes, we need to be mindful about money (and consumption). No, money is not everything. But going from one extreme to the other, and especially invoking guilt or blame games (either implied or direct), is unlikely to create an example for others to aspire to either.

I understand where all of these come from, and I’ve felt the same way myself. I still struggle with it all.

I know that money has commodified what used to be exchanged as gifts, and broken the social bonds that came with those exchanges. I’m aware that the process by which money is created and controlled is a major part of our environmental and social dysfunction.

But I’m calling ‘bullshit’ on all of this ‘money martyrdom’.

The system that we live in, right now, requires us to do certain things to meet our needs for food, shelter and services, as well as our wants.

Right now, most (but not all) of those needs and wants are met through the need to exchange our labour to earn money to pay for it.

That’s just the way it is – right now.

Remember: we’re all working on changing what constitutes ‘right now’.

And even though we might vehemently disagree with aspects of ‘the system’, sustaining oneself is critical for being able to do that change work.

You cannot do your best work for the world when you are worrying about paying the rent and the mortgage, or putting food on the table.

Your dentist doesn’t have a problem charging you when you get your teeth checked up. Your mechanic is just fine with billing you for time and materials needed to make sure your car’s running well and the brakes are working.

A colleague who has worked in this area for many years put it eloquently:

…money is just a symbolic representation of the things we need such as food, shelter, clothing etc. Does anyone apologise for needing those things? I know our society has got very good at specialising, but it’s like some people have delegated the hard moral stuff to others, and part of that includes expecting them to somehow be above these basic requirements, like they can be nourished exclusively on some moral plane. Sorry folks, we do not accept the delegation!

She makes an important point here – why should the financial sacrifice of change work fall on the shoulders of a relatively small number of people in society?

And secondly, even if there is some value recognition attached to this work, true change is not going to come if the rest of society is not part of it:

The world will be saved when people realize we all have to pitch in. You can’t just pay your money and hope that someone else will do the job right.

Pete Seeger

Right now, there’s a huge imbalance of both money and energy out there.

So, change agents, don’t shy away from looking to monetise your work, or develop opportunities which can help you free up your time – or at least your brain – from financial concerns, so you can concentrate on what truly matters to you.

The most important thing change agents can do to ensure they are able to continue to do whatever it is they’re passionate about is to look after their own security and wellbeing, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – AND financial.

And don’t apologise for it.

Have you ever encountered ‘money martyrdom’, in the sustainability movement or elsewhere? What do you think motivated it?

Did you challenge it? If so, what happened?

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  1. […] “You cannot do your best work for the world when you are worrying about paying the rent and the mortgage, or putting food on the table… Money is just a symbolic representation of the things we need such as food, shelter, clothing etc. Does anyone apologise for needing those things?” Sharon Ede, Cruxcatalyst […]

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