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What is the reward for humanitarian work? For working at a non-governmental organization (NGO) or working as a volunteer? The response that has been popularized within our societal psyche is that of a parent explaining to a child why it’s important to give gifts on holidays. That feeling of giving someone something, of seeing their face light up, is supposed to be transferable to service work. It is common knowledge that this work is relatively thankless when compared with other jobs in sectors more related to the corporate world, but it is similarly common knowledge that there has to be some sort of personal reward for it. There’s an idea that there is a specifically heartwarming — a specifically human — reward for this kind of dedication to the betterment of society. There is supposed to be a moment when “it’s all worth it.” While this kind of feeling certainly exists and definitely occupies a wholesome, almost sacred, place in the realm of human emotions, I don’t think that it’s tied to NGO work in any generalizable way.

I’ve been thinking about this since last Thursday when a group member asked the rest of us why we thought the people in our placement organizations did the work that they did. For many of them, who spend their days working in an office, I really don’t know where the human reward would come from. Most of the work at an NGO isn’t field work. It’s paper pushing, it’s writing, it’s securing funding. And even though all this work is incredibly important, it’s hard to trace its impact. So what’s the incentive?

For most of the people I’ve spoken to, it’s surprisingly…pagan. Many of my co-workers have had an experience that pushed them towards NGO work, and they treat these experiences as idols. They revisit them and are replenished in a pseudo-religious way. For others, it’s more about the way they were raised. Regardless, the motivation to do this work most often comes from inside. Whatever form it takes, it’s put on a kind of personal altar, the door to which is worn from constant visitation. The strength of anyone’s commitment to keep up with service work most likely reflects how compelling their altarpiece is.

One person at Sonke was so compelled by one such experience that he dropped out of college — abandoning an engineering degree at one of the world’s most prestigious universities. His continued work is largely motivated by that memory. This kind of internal memory-based engine is, I think, necessary to keep someone involved with service work. Were they to rely on an external incentive, even if it were that clichéd emotional reward, I’m not sure it could be sustained.