What Is The Untold Dark Side Of Doing Good

Featuring Guest -
Leigh Mathews
September 15, 2020
| Evolve
043
hosted by: Brandon Stover
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Leigh Mathews is the Founder & Expert Consultant at ALTO Global. Leigh is also is an author, speaker, social purpose coach, & highly experienced consultant with over 15 years in Corporate Social Responsibility, philanthropy and international development sectors. After the hit of the 2008 financial crisis, she closed her NGO and started questioning the effectiveness of the charity sector and if doing good was actually having a positive effect on social problems. And so began her work with organisations such as UN Women, World Challenge, Intrepid Group, and dozens more to achieve aligned, ethical and sustainable impact.

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Young, Naive, & Passion To Help Others

Brandon Stover: [00:03:21] As I mentioned before we got on the call, you know, doing a lot of research and just having my eyes open. Take me back to when you were first on your first trip in Cambodia and kind of that feeling that you got during that trip.

Leigh Mathews: [00:03:36] I went to Cambodia on the way back from a long. Kind of working holiday or if it sees, I guess, a backpacking holiday. And I went there specifically with the intention of volunteering, I organized a volunteer placement before, and it was to be my last stop on a kind of world trip. And I'd never volunteered before.

So I didn't really know what I was in for, but I kind of thought, yeah, I can, I can do this.  On the way there I stopped Vietnam and I inadvertently ended up doing a day of volunteering at, at an orphanage for children with disabilities. So that was my kind of first experience. And it was a situation where I didn't intend to do it. I was staying in a bathroom is hostile. And I saw our poster on the wall that said, come and fall into ya. And I talked to some of the other backpackers and they said, Oh, you know, you haven't really done Hoyan, unless you've volunteered at the orphanage. Now Hoyan, for those of you that don't know is a small city in central Vietnam.

And, I was kind of thinking, Oh, that's so strange, but okay. If that's what you do. Okay. and so I went along and turned up at this orphanage for children with severe disabilities. And I was very, very confronted with what I saw there. I'd never been around children with such severe disabilities before. I'd never been into an orphanage. I didn't, I didn't know what I was going to bedoing. And I felt. You know, a whole range of complex and overwhelming emotions. You know, sadness, helplessness, but also a really strong feeling that I shouldn't be there. that I didn't know the language that I didn't know how to care for these children, that they couldn't tell me whether they wanted me to be doing what I was doing.

It was a room full of foreign young foreign volunteers, backpackers, feeding and bathing and dressing, very, very vulnerable children with severe disabilities. And I left feeling very uncomfortable and chose not to go back the following day, but I really didn't know or why I didn't, I didn't have the kind of framework or the words to describe why.

I just, it was a feeling in the pit of my stomach that it wasn't right. But I continued on to Cambodia. And I got there and I, started my volunteer placement, which was teaching English in a small village, about 25 to 30 kilometers outside of a place called Seimreap. And I had to cycle there and back every day.

And I turned up on my first day. No teaching training, no qualifications to be a teacher whatsoever. In fact, a really disjointed education myself. And there were all these faces. It says looking up at me, expecting something. I, you know, I had this moment of going, I can't do this. I don't, I don't know what I'm doing.

but I kind of dug in and took a deep breath and went, alright, let's do it. And you know, parents were looking through the windows, there was a cow right outside that would chickens three, you know, in the, in the classroom. And I remember thinking, what am I doing? Like, what am I doing? And no guidance was provided around how to teach what to teach, what they'd been taught before.

What a previous volunteer had done. So I just started from scratch. I started at ABC and, you know, looking back. Okay. I think that the children and the, the teacher that was already, we're too polite to say, we've already done this. Oh, you know, countless volunteers have already done that.  I persisted for a few weeks and I just couldn't get rid of that feeling in the pit of my stomach, that it wasn't right. That I shouldn't be doing it, that I wasn't qualified.

Brandon Stover: [00:07:41] Is this what drove you to start the future Cambodia fund?

Leigh Mathews: [00:07:46] Yeah, kind of, I decided to stop going to my volunteer placement, but, in the meantime, I had taken a night job working in a bar cause I'd run out of money on my backpacking trip. so I'd taken a night job working in a bar in central simreap. this was back in 2004.

So it was not, if your listeners have been to Siemreap, it's very different. There were no traffic lights, no banks, no supermarkets. There was one straight with a couple of bars on it and that's it. and so I was working in a bar and. There are a lot of street children and their family is around. And I got to know some of those kids and their families. I kind of started, I'm thinking, well, what's, what's in place for them. What who's providing support for them.

And I, we realized that no one was, and no one wanted to. I spoke to people running organizations locally and they said, Oh no, no one works with them. One of the local hospitals wouldn't treat children that were from these families, the other one would, but the families with, I didn't know, they were scared to go to the hospital due to cultural reasons.

so I started thinking, how can I, how can I do something here, natively thinking that I could, you know, do something. And, In the bar I met a group of Canadian paramedics that was on a kind of mission trip, I guess I'm working with the local hospital and I'd started volunteering doing some admin work at the hospital.

Cause I thought, Oh, I can do that. I qualified to do that. And we got to talking and we decided to set up like a straight clinic, where these families could come to get kind of preliminary medical care, like assessed for deeper issues and referred to the hospital if they needed. And that was the star of future Cambodia fund.

That was kind of where it started in terms of the seed of the idea being planted that I could potentially do more here. I never intended or wanted to open an organization. but I, and I tried to talk to other charities that were working locally. but nobody really had funds or interest in working with this particular group of people.

so being very young and naive and idealistic, I was, I thought, Oh, I could do this. so that's, that's how it happened.

Hard Lessons Learned Starting A NGO In Her 20's

Brandon Stover: [00:10:19] What were some of the lessons that you ended up learning about social responsibility doing future cambodia fund?

Leigh Mathews: [00:10:27] I learned that there's a whole lot of ineffective aid out there. And a lot of, donors just wanting boxes, tipped to say, you know, we built 10 Wells, but no interest in the fact that perhaps these Wells went functioning after six months, or there was no oversight in the quality of the well digging so that they were, they were now, , they had aresnic through them, so they weren't usable.

I learned that there are a lot of people like me, young people that were very idealistic that came to a place like Cambodia and were very moved by what they saw and decided to set up an organization. I saw a proliferation of those organizations and volunteers coming in or for that. I learned that running a charity is really, really, really hard. and. That I, I needed mentorship and guidance through that time that I didn't have access to.

I learned that the Australian media and community really props up young people like me that go in and, seem to be selfless. And, and really kind of, that's what I call hero worshiping. So, you know, here's this young girl that gave up her early twenties to care for the poor Cambodian children. That's the narrative in the media.

On reflection I think that it's really harmful because it kind of engages other people in that narrative, all the young people, and they went to emulate that and they think it's fine to go as a 21 year old or a 23 year old and start an orphanage or start a charity when they qualifications and no, no, no real kind of social license operate or be there.

So, yes, a lot of lessons. Funding, it's really hard to come across as very competitive. A lot of projects are donor driven. And by that, I mean, if the donor feels like they want to fund something, then the organization has to completely pivot or else they don't get the funding. and I came out of that experience very much, very disillusioned with the international development sector and didn't really want anything to do with it for a long time.

Brandon Stover: [00:12:44] And when did you start to realize that, you know, the good intentions that you may be doing are actually causing more harm or not doing the good that you thought they might have in the beginning?

Leigh Mathews: [00:12:55] I think looking back there was always that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I didn't quite know what I didn't quite know enough. and I, I am somebody that. You know, I love learning and I will research and research and research until I know her. That was really difficult to do whilst running a charity and having staff and running programs. And I ended up being completely burnt out, as, as well as disillusioned. And I think it took me a few years to stop having conversations with other people that had done the same thing. To start being critical of their, you know, the young people that found organizations like me, and to kind of say, well, what went wrong? What didn't I know, and why didn't I know it.

It comes down to education traditional education, but also life edgy, you know, education, cultural knowledge, language acquisition, all sorts of things that really contribute to being able to make a meaningful difference in people's lives and not cause more harm.

Working in child protection, particularly in international child protection, you see a lot of people who are very moved by what they witnessed. And rightly so. And a move to, yeah, something up or make a project. And I started to see a lot of the harms that caused particularly in orphanages Through that, I think I did a lot more self exploration around why we do these things. Why do we start projects? Why do we think that we know? And we can come into these countries and set up an orphanage as a 21 year old. That's still effectively a child, you know? Yeah. Yeah.

The Little Known Secret About Voluntourism

Brandon Stover: [00:14:48] Can you speak to some of the things that you were trying to change? I mean, you talk a lot about voluntourism and, some of the things that you were trying to do with like rethink orphanages network?

Leigh Mathews: [00:14:57] Yeah, sure.  Rethink orphanages was started by myself and my colleague, Rebecca nep. I had both lived and worked in Cambodia in the child protection sector for a long time. And we didn't meet in Cambodia though. We met in Australia. We sat down in a cafe one day and we were talking about how problematic the huge increase in volunteers going to orphanage while orphanages was in Cambodia. we were discussing. What the government was trying to do to prevent children entering orphanages. And we thought, look really mad that the government in Cambodia does at this point, if we don't work to address or STEM the flow of people and money and resources from places like Australia, too orphanages in Cambodia and other places. It doesn't matter what policies the government puts in place.

Those three things that the flow of the people, money and resources, far too powerful to really have anything impact on what the government's trying to do. The government wouldn't be able to overcome those factors, that economy of supply and demand. so we tried to come together and bring a group of organizations and individuals from all different sectors that we knew impacted orphanages.

So the education in sector, the charity sector, the, the travel sector, obviously. And the faith sector. Are all really big it as to the institutionalization of children. so we, we bought representatives and organizations from those sectors together to discuss a coordinated strategy to stop sending volunteers to orphanages and stop funding orphanages and stop setting up, setting up orphanages.

And that coordinated strategy bore in government as well in Australia. And we were fortunate enough to have a champion within senior levels of government who was able to get off the issue of institutionalization and orphanage trafficking recognized as a form of modern slavery in Australia. Which we are the first country in the world to do so

Brandon Stover: [00:17:20] Just to give our listeners kind of a picture of what this really looks like. Can you share a story that you had mentioned before about children kind of being trafficking into what was being labeled as a school being told to their parents, but it was actually could be to use them as you know, to get revenue from these volunteers coming in?

Leigh Mathews: [00:17:40] Yeah, sure. So what you're talking about is orphanage trafficking. And when we say that, we mean that children are, one way or another moved from their homes into an orphanage for the purposes of exploitation. so what often happens and I can use the example of Nepal. Families or communities, often very remote and very far away from decent education or quality education, and parents in these remote communities like old parents everywhere wants the best for their children and want to allow them to have a quality education.

And so what happens is Scouts from orphanages come travel a long way. Sometimes days and days of walking through the mountains to these remote communities and say, I come from a boarding school. If you pay me, I'll take your child to Katmandu and they will live in a boarding school and they'll come home on the holidays. You'll get regular reports. And of course the parents scraped together everything that they have. And often the scout will take a bunch of children from one village and do the days long Trek back to Katmandu.

The parents think that their children are In the boarding school, the scout has also been paid by the orphanage. So they're getting a double payment. Holidays roll around and the child doesn't come home or they're not getting regular reports. And eventually the parents might have pulled to Katmandu to the boarding school and find that the boarding school doesn't exist. And that these children have actually been placed in orphanages, had their records falsified to be what we call paper orphans.

and in some cases there's a few cases where they've been adopted internationally. but often children can be bought and sold and leased between orphanages. for example, if this child's good at traditional dancing and this child's too old and we want a younger child, they can be moved between orphanages and all of this is for the purpose of having children in orphanages so that foreigners can come and volunteer with those children or donate to that orphanage. And the worse conditions the child, the children are kept in, the more money comes in. so that's, that's what we mean when we talk about orphanage trafficking. Yeah. And that is a real problem in many, many places, but particularly being documented in Nepal.

The Exploitation Of Emotion

Brandon Stover: [00:20:24] I think it's just like a very good picture of, you know, what's going on. And when I was hearing some of this stuff myself, You know, as humans, we have this like inate response to you want to do something good. To do something for others. But we don't always realize that the good that we think we're doing is not actually doing good.

You have a article that's written about basically the way we make decisions about how we do good. And a lot of that is based on our emotional responses. I was curious how we can start making more intentional decisions about, the organization's want to align with, or things we want to do and not have it be entirely driven by emotion?

Leigh Mathews: [00:21:04] I think it's important to note that emotion is really that their base driver for us wanting to, to help. and the reason we want to help is to ease somebody else's discomfort. But also our own discomfort because it elicits strong emotions like sadness or frustration or helplessness. And so we are moved to take action to get rid of that in our own bodies, as well as alleviate the suffering of something else or someone else.

so I think it's important to know that, you know, emotion is why we do good and that's not a bad thing. It's about being not solely driven by that. It's about being able to step out of the emotional space and take a rational view or logical view in terms of decision making. So, right. I'm moved by this issue. I want to help, I want to do something. Now's the time to step back and do some critical thinking, some research, understand a little bit more about the issue.

I'll use orphanages as an example because it's a really good one. It moves a lot of people. This idea that there are millions of children without parents living in orphanages that are desperate for our love and care, which is not true. but it moves us that story, that narrative moves us.

And so we might be kind of inclined to go, Oh, here's some money. I'll, here's an orphanage. Here's some money. Instantly, I feel relieved. I've done something I've helped those children. But you might want to step back and go, Whoa, those children in orphanages, you know what actually going on. And did we have orphanages in our own countries? Is that standard practice, now? I wonder where their parents are?

You know, and once you start asking these questions and doing a bit of research, you can start to see the surface and dig a little bit deeper and realize that, you know, 80% of children in orphanages have parents, the primary driver for being in an orphanage is poverty.

actually that might lead you down a path of realizing that perhaps funding the orphanage, which is at the end of the road. Maybe we can fund things that actually prevent sure being separated from their families in the first place. Maybe we should donate to organizations that improve livelihoods for parents, that help bring them out of poverty.

Maybe we should fund the education programs that keep kids in school so that the cycle doesn't continue. You know, maybe we can look at providing funding for trauma therapy programs. You know, countries where there's been a lot of conflict, conflict and children and their parents haven't yeah. A lot of psychological pain and damage from that.

So it's about really getting clear on what the issue is, and then doing your research and finding a way to support that in a longterm sustainable way, that's going to have impact over time. And he's not just band-aiding. And in fact, causing far greater problems in the future.

Brandon Stover: [00:24:26] Companies and their marketers are pretty aware of this emotional response and are oftentimes trying to elicit us from it. can you explain the idea of poverty porn?

Leigh Mathews: [00:24:36] Yeah, poverty porn, the best example I can give. And one of them will be very familiar is, when we were doing a lot of people were doing the 40 hour famine. Do you have that? Did you have that over there?

Brandon Stover: [00:24:50] It doesn't ring a bell.

Leigh Mathews: [00:24:53] it might be an Australian thing. But, back when I was at school, we had a fundraising kind of movement called the 40 hour famine, which you did once a year.

And it was run by an organization called world vision. and the idea was that you didn't eat for 40 hours and you raised money. And a lot of the marketing around that was, you know, starving african children with distended, bellies flies crawling in their eyes and their mouth and sad music. And those children looking very sick and vulnerable.

That is poverty porn. Poverty porn is when we, presented with visual imagery of children or vulnerable adults that look sick, malnourished, dirty, you know, in a doc lighting behind bars, things like that. And that is designed specifically, typically to tap into that emotion that we have, that we want to help. We moved to help when we see somebody's suffering like that. And it's really clever, you know, it brings in to play psychology and all of the tricks that might it's using every aspect of life. but the problem with it is that it's an undignified representation of a human being of a real person that you know, it has to live with the knowledge, and in many cases they don't know, or haven't provided consent, but they are forever attached to an image of suffering. And this is particularly relevant when we talk about children.

And there was a case in Australia, not so long ago, a few years ago where a charity had three children who were dirty lighting was dark dressed in kind of raggedy cars in Cambodia, holding up signs, saying future sex worker. Future, I think traffic, traffic person or something like that. Is, you know, an eight year old girl holding up a sign that went all over the internet, all over social media saying future sex worker. It's incredibly problematic and he's very, is a breach of the rights of that child. There's no way she could have given informed consent to know what that would mean.

Brandon Stover: [00:27:12] Yeah, a big question around the idea of does the ends justify the means, you know, with this type of marketing, because it is effective. And if you know, the money is going towards an organization that actually is doing good, like the money gets to put to good use. Should we elicit those types of responses to get more money because it's actually being used for good or, you know, are there better ways to go about it?

Leigh Mathews: [00:27:34] I think that's a really good question. as a, as a child protection practitioner, I will always come back to the right. So the individual child, and to me, portraying children in that way is a breach of their right to dignity and their right to privacy. And their ability to give consent. And so I don't think that one child's rights should be breached in order to, to raise money for his or her care or other children's care.

I think there are better ways to portray the challenges that we have socially. At a global level, and children should be depicted if they're to be depicted at all. as you know, they present as mostly in their life, which has happy, laughing, children playing with their friends. You know, it's, it's a moment in time that's often staged based on the images and that's really, really problematic because the internet means that it never ever goes away.

Brandon Stover: [00:28:43] I think, you know, we know what on the marketing end, you know, the sort of responses that we can elicit with the negative aspects, but if we focused on, you know, the positive aspects and really trying to optimize, we could, you know, get a very similar level of response, both ways. I think.

Leigh Mathews: [00:29:00] Absolutely. I think, Peter singer, who I interviewed on my podcast, who's a philosopher at Princeton university. He's an Australian philosopher though. he was talking about some nice studies coming out that have shown that positive representations of people are equally as effective. but I think on the other side of that, and it goes back to the question you asked earlier is that we as the consumer and the donor have a responsibility to also educate ourselves to do better and to not be the person that responds to these marketing messages that are exploitative. I think that the onus is certainly on the charities that do it, but we as individuals should be taking some of that onus back as well.

Brandon Stover: [00:29:48] Yeah. What roles and responsibilities do you think like media and education plays in investigating or delivering a view of this project?

Leigh Mathews: [00:30:01] I think the education system plays a really big role in, Prepping young people for white savior ism. I like to call it privileged saviorism as well. In a lot of schools, it is indoctrinated into people from the very first year of school that you are privileged and you should help others.

and whether that it comes from a faith based perspective or not, I think it really it's really pushed. And by the time young people get, to the kind of the age of 15 or 16 often they'll go and engage on a, on a school trip. Or a mission trip where they get to live out that ideal, that they've been told that, that they can help.

so I think there's a, there's a real issue that around creating this mindset of I am the savior. Yeah, I'm the helper. I've got something to offer rather than actually trading young people. Where they are in their life. So the age and stage of life that they're at, which is learning. So, you know, rather than going and building a you know, a heart or digging some trenches and getting dirty and really, you know, as a way to check your privilege. But for me, it really just cements your privilege, but you know, or volunteering in an orphanage, why don't we go and learn. Learn about the complex social issues that are driving poverty in these places or driving women to be disempowered or children, to not access education, you know, treat young people as learners because that's what they are. And they will be equipped to make change at a greater level as they grow. As for media, I think media really does play a role in perpetuating that hero narrative, you know, that savior narrative. And, like I said earlier, you know, I experienced that. I had a bunch of media articles done on me. You know, youngest Chilean woman gives up her early twenties and, it doesn't help.

It doesn't help have difficult conversations around whether we have a right to go in and do this. it's just a shooting that we do. And a good example is, somebody went and started an orphanage in Cambodia and they'd been running it for years. they were young when they started it. When we spoke to them about the government policies and requirements and regulatory requirements around orphanages, they said, Oh no, there's no laws here. There's no rules.

So there's an assumption that nothing's going on. The government's not doing anything so therefore they have license to do whatever they want. And that's really problematic. And I think that comes from the media perpetuating these ideas that you can go into countries in the global South, or, you know, what other people call developing countries and just go and set up, set up, shop.

How To Solve Wicked Problems In The World

Brandon Stover: [00:33:05] A lot of the problems that we've been talking about are what you call wicked problems. How might we be able to work towards better solutions to these specifically like in a cooperative structure rather than like a top down approach? As many of these are.

Leigh Mathews: [00:33:19] Yeah, I think that's the key to tackling wicked problems. And I think, you know, we can problems themselves are not solvable. That's why we call them wicked. And, they're particularly not solvable because you can't come at it from one angle. And when you come at it from one angle, you cause problems on the other side of the coin.

The only way to tackle this is collaboratively and is with the systems thinking or systems design approach. And that involves really taking a step back from that top down hierarchical approach of where he had to solve your problems and actually going, we don't, we don't know what do you know and bringing everybody on an equal playing field rather than just because you have the money and you're the donor, or you've got 30 years experience running an organization, you don't necessarily know more. And I think that's the key is, is listening and learning and not assuming that, you know,

Brandon Stover: [00:34:28] How do we start to get to the cores of these problems? So, like for example, you've written about, you know, fighting poverty, we need to first dismantle the structures that support it and perpetuate it. So, you know, with all these wicked problems, how do we really get to the core of what the problem is?

Leigh Mathews: [00:34:46] Well, I think the core of the problem is the structures. I think, you know, we live in a capitalist world that pushes the individual achievement and wealth, at the expense of the collective or the community. The international development or the aid system itself is built on colonial structures.

It's, you know, and it's an oxymoron because you know, it goes in to try to solve the problem that colonialism caused, but itself is a colonial structure. And I think. You know, dismantling that system will take a really, really long time. And I think it will be less of a dismantling and more of a slow shift to a different way of operating.

But we need to be having the difficult conversations that are starting to happen now around racism and around colonialism and around how the aid sector perpetuates itself. You know, it causes problems so it can fix them. and that those are the hard conversations I think we need to be having.

Brandon Stover: [00:35:57] Yeah, I think you also give a pretty good, explanation about working in those communities and having it become like the solutions come from those communities rather than a reliance on whoever is coming in to kind of solve the problem.

Leigh Mathews: [00:36:12] Yeah. Yeah, definitely. And I think, you know, that that can be really challenging for example, post-conflict countries that have been really conditioned to rely on aid. and you know, some of the primary kind of. Industry. So sectors are the aid sector and it can be hard to unravel or unpack that mindset and come back to a really basic community level conversation about what's best and what do you want and how do we get there? and it, it is complex and it's almost a wicked problem in itself because you know, organizations that want, may want to facilitate these type of programs or compensations are constrained by the wheel of the donor driven kind of reporting cycle. So what if the community doesn't come to a conclusion within the six months time that have been allocated for that portion of money to be spent?

You know, it's, it's hard because it's it doesn't nicely fit into a box and donors and reporting structures and even big NGOs like to box things up and, and have them fit into a specific timeline.

How To Find Good Charities To Work With

Brandon Stover: [00:37:32] I want to talk a little bit, cause you do some consulting work for businesses and you know, the ones that want to align with a certain mission or something that they're doing. How do you help a business who decide, you know, what missions they want to align with?

Leigh Mathews: [00:37:48] I think it's really important first before you align with anything is to work out what your values are, and align with something that meets that. And so when I work with companies, we do some work around values and we try to understand the ecosystem within which they operate.

A good example is I work with a client, that  works with women that run small businesses. I really neat fit and something that fits with their values is supporting women that are marginalized or escaping, you know, family violence or things like that. so there's, there's a really good alignment. So that's the first thing it's going. Doesn't it align with? The core business that I'm delivering is that part of my ecosystem where my clients, my suppliers, you know, the wider community that I operate in.

And then secondly, it's about developing a framework, an ethical framework for giving that really specifies what you will and weren't support and why. For my own business, we don't support anything to do with the institutionalization of children and less, it is effectively working to prevent it, you know?

So, so having a clear framework of what we will and want support and why helps us make decisions about, you know, if something comes up and I haven't. Triggered with that emotional response. And I want to help, I can refer back and go, no, actually this is, this is what keeps us on track. This is what we're doing. And this is how we can have a longterm sustainable impact and actually measure it over time and say, you know what? Over the past five years, because we stayed on track, it's aligned with our values. We're measuring it. This is what we've been able to achieve.

Brandon Stover: [00:39:48] How do you set up those like impact metrics so that you know if your money's actually going towards something good?

Leigh Mathews: [00:39:54] It's really customized to each that I work with. I, because obviously they have different levels of ability to contribute and it might not be financial. It might be in kind, might be offering, people access to existing products. What we do is we set up an internal system that measures, it also relies on the organizations that we partner with to be able to measure that impact as well. And then to integrate that into how we've done in our own ecosystem. And then that results in reporting. I think it's really important for business owners to understand that doing good, shouldn't be siloed off to the side. It shouldn't be a tokenistic end of year donation. It should be something that's really integrated into the DNA of your business. And it should be Applied across everything that you do. So it's kind of taking a step back and looking at everything the business does, supply chains, customers advertising, everything and going, where can we do better? And then. focusing in on, on what cause do we want to support? And then that's where that investment starts to pay back.

I think it's, it's a myth that, you know, you shouldn't make money off it doing good. I think plenty of businesses can make money off aligning with causes that resonate with their community, their suppliers. Their clients. and you will see that return to you over and over because you're really living purpose, you know, through your business.

And that's where I get. A lot of companies will invest in consultants for marketing, you know, Financial advice and things like that, but they think they've got it with the doing good side. And I want to say like the desire to do good is great, but the potential to cause immense harm through your doing good is also there. And that's why you need to kind of engage with people that can help you understand and align.

Brandon Stover: [00:42:11] Yeah, I think, your advice about, you know, aligning with in a sector that, you know, you're a part of, and then also treating it as a major part of your business is really important because now you are going to do the same amount of research. You're going to put the same amount of effort and attention that you would put maybe towards your marketing or whatever, but towards this part too. So you don't just react from that emotion. As well as if the domain that you're aligning with is part of your knowledge that you have more ability to recognize, Oh, is our money actually doing something good in this sector?

Leigh Mathews: [00:42:46] Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And you know, hopefully you're working in a sector that means something to you and you, you know, moves you in some way. And you know, a lot about that sector and you arrive, you know, it's more of a motivation and you're improving whatever it is that you're involved in by engaging with causes that work in that space.

Brandon Stover: [00:43:10] Do you think we should do good work in our own communities or areas where we have more control rather than extending ourselves to other areas?

Leigh Mathews: [00:43:19] Yes, I think, I think the ability to have a greater impact over time. So sustainably is there. a really basic example is if you work for six months on an issue in your local community that you know really well, and you can regularly engage in versus going and building a house for a week in a Farfan country that you know nothing about, of course the impact is going to be greater. Of course, your sense of achievement is going to be greater. Your knowledge of the issue is going to increase. And hopefully you become more of an advocate for that issue and you can see the change.

You go Into, you know, as small community and build a house for a week. You'll never really hear anything about it other than perhaps an occasional newsletter from the organization that you did it with.  so yes, I would say work in your own community over time.

The Key Insight From Dozens Of Do Gooders

Brandon Stover: [00:44:18] what insights from the people that you've interviewed on your own podcast, I've kind of shifted your thinking about this stuff?

Leigh Mathews: [00:44:26] I started the podcast really to understand why people do good. You know, I think at a, from a kind of psychological perspective. Yes. It's about emotional, you know, it's, it's about that pure, basic elicit of eliciting of emotion, but I wanted to understand what drives them to engage in a career of doing good. what have they learned over time? What frustrations, what challenges, what we could problems do they have? And I think. You know what, I'm, what I'm learning over three seasons now, is that in just the sense of injustice drives a lot of peopl e. That they can't deal with what they're seeing in the world and they want to make change.

And the way that they do it is so different. You know, some people take a very traditional route and go through. You know, university working in UN agencies, and then they come out the other side. Yeah. Well, this system is really, really messed up. and then others like me kind of do it completely around the other way, but we also seem to be coming to the same conclusion, but the system is quite messed up So many people are causing so much harm without realizing it. and, and I think, I think what, what keeps getting cemented for me is that. People inherently want to do good. They want to help. And our world has made it so easy for them to do so. You know, technology, I've talked about this before you can purchase it  pair of pants online, shopping, and you can click one little button and donate $2 to whichever organization has aligned with that company. And you don't, you get a little, you know, a little, we, I did something good for a few seconds and it's what is $2, but you don't know anything about that organization and nor are you kind of inclined to go and look. Look it up really? Unless you have someone like me, that's forever. Okay. What is that? What is that?

So I think what I'm realizing is the weld has made it very, yeah. Easy for us to engage in what we think is doing good, and require very little critical thinking of us. And I think the way to solve that is through companies doing better at doing good, through individuals, having critical thinking and research skills and understanding these issues and that they have a great deal of power. and for organizations delivering projects to also do better, I think, you know, it's a system, again, a systems approach.

Brandon Stover: [00:47:28] what personally drives you to do good?

Leigh Mathews: [00:47:30] That in the sense of injustice for me has been really, really strong since I was young. I think at first kind of redid its head around animal welfare. When I became a vegan, when I was 11 and. You know, I I've always felt a great deal of it. Empathy for people that suffer and animals that suffer. but I never thought that I would make a career out of it.

And I certainly never thought I would, that career would evolve into picking apart the idea of doing good. If I think about, and I talk to my clients about this, like what issue puts a fire in your belly? What is it that really brings up all of those emotions? And for me, it's children and injustice. So, you know, whether that's lack of access to education, whether that's, you know, being living in abusive or violent communities or families, that that is the thing for me that really drives me to want to engage in doing good, but also to do better at it because I've seen the harm that people trying to help her causing.

How Leigh Believes We Can Push The World To Evolve

Have difficult conversations... That for me is key to unpicking the complexities of what is wrong in the world. Being willing to have uncomfortable conversations about what you have done or want to do. Be willing to change what you think is doing good. It's really about taking the responsibility to educate ourselves and doing that through uncomfortable conversations.

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What Is The Untold Dark Side Of Doing Good

Featuring Guest -

Leigh Mathews

hosted by: Brandon Stover
043

September 15, 2020

Leigh Mathews is the Founder & Expert Consultant at ALTO Global. Leigh is also is an author, speaker, social purpose coach, & highly experienced consultant with over 15 years in Corporate Social Responsibility, philanthropy and international development sectors. Starting in her early 20’s, she founded an NGO in Cambodia working on child rights issues after witnessing children living in extreme poverty. No good deed goes unpunished as she was awarded the Victorian Young Australian of the Year, Australian Leadership Award and the JCI Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World Award. Yet she would soon learn the world was not as it seems.

After the hit of the 2008 financial crisis, she closed her NGO and started questioning the effectiveness of the charity sector and if doing good was actually having a positive effect on social problems. And so began her work with organisations such as UN Women, World Challenge, Intrepid Group, and dozens more to achieve aligned, ethical and sustainable impact.

Still disturbed by the institutionalisation of children inside orphanages, she Co Founded the ReThink Orphanages Network which is shifting the way countries in the global north engage with overseas aid and development and has expanded operations from Australia to Europe and the US.

Internationally recognized as an ethics expert for the intersection between development, business and philanthropy, she has been featured in ABC, the Guardian, Project Syndicate, Swinburne University of Technology, Global Journalist and dozens more media outlets. Additionally she sits on the Victorian Government School for Student Leadership School Council, and is a member of the Advisory Board for Australian Volunteers International’s ChildSafe Volunteering Hub. And if all that wasn’t enough, she is also the co author of Modern Day Slavery and Orphanage Tourism and host of the The Good Problem Podcast.

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Young, Naive, & Passion To Help Others

Brandon Stover: [00:03:21] As I mentioned before we got on the call, you know, doing a lot of research and just having my eyes open. Take me back to when you were first on your first trip in Cambodia and kind of that feeling that you got during that trip.

Leigh Mathews: [00:03:36] I went to Cambodia on the way back from a long. Kind of working holiday or if it sees, I guess, a backpacking holiday. And I went there specifically with the intention of volunteering, I organized a volunteer placement before, and it was to be my last stop on a kind of world trip. And I'd never volunteered before.

So I didn't really know what I was in for, but I kind of thought, yeah, I can, I can do this.  On the way there I stopped Vietnam and I inadvertently ended up doing a day of volunteering at, at an orphanage for children with disabilities. So that was my kind of first experience. And it was a situation where I didn't intend to do it. I was staying in a bathroom is hostile. And I saw our poster on the wall that said, come and fall into ya. And I talked to some of the other backpackers and they said, Oh, you know, you haven't really done Hoyan, unless you've volunteered at the orphanage. Now Hoyan, for those of you that don't know is a small city in central Vietnam.

And, I was kind of thinking, Oh, that's so strange, but okay. If that's what you do. Okay. and so I went along and turned up at this orphanage for children with severe disabilities. And I was very, very confronted with what I saw there. I'd never been around children with such severe disabilities before. I'd never been into an orphanage. I didn't, I didn't know what I was going to bedoing. And I felt. You know, a whole range of complex and overwhelming emotions. You know, sadness, helplessness, but also a really strong feeling that I shouldn't be there. that I didn't know the language that I didn't know how to care for these children, that they couldn't tell me whether they wanted me to be doing what I was doing.

It was a room full of foreign young foreign volunteers, backpackers, feeding and bathing and dressing, very, very vulnerable children with severe disabilities. And I left feeling very uncomfortable and chose not to go back the following day, but I really didn't know or why I didn't, I didn't have the kind of framework or the words to describe why.

I just, it was a feeling in the pit of my stomach that it wasn't right. But I continued on to Cambodia. And I got there and I, started my volunteer placement, which was teaching English in a small village, about 25 to 30 kilometers outside of a place called Seimreap. And I had to cycle there and back every day.

And I turned up on my first day. No teaching training, no qualifications to be a teacher whatsoever. In fact, a really disjointed education myself. And there were all these faces. It says looking up at me, expecting something. I, you know, I had this moment of going, I can't do this. I don't, I don't know what I'm doing.

but I kind of dug in and took a deep breath and went, alright, let's do it. And you know, parents were looking through the windows, there was a cow right outside that would chickens three, you know, in the, in the classroom. And I remember thinking, what am I doing? Like, what am I doing? And no guidance was provided around how to teach what to teach, what they'd been taught before.

What a previous volunteer had done. So I just started from scratch. I started at ABC and, you know, looking back. Okay. I think that the children and the, the teacher that was already, we're too polite to say, we've already done this. Oh, you know, countless volunteers have already done that.  I persisted for a few weeks and I just couldn't get rid of that feeling in the pit of my stomach, that it wasn't right. That I shouldn't be doing it, that I wasn't qualified.

Brandon Stover: [00:07:41] Is this what drove you to start the future Cambodia fund?

Leigh Mathews: [00:07:46] Yeah, kind of, I decided to stop going to my volunteer placement, but, in the meantime, I had taken a night job working in a bar cause I'd run out of money on my backpacking trip. so I'd taken a night job working in a bar in central simreap. this was back in 2004.

So it was not, if your listeners have been to Siemreap, it's very different. There were no traffic lights, no banks, no supermarkets. There was one straight with a couple of bars on it and that's it. and so I was working in a bar and. There are a lot of street children and their family is around. And I got to know some of those kids and their families. I kind of started, I'm thinking, well, what's, what's in place for them. What who's providing support for them.

And I, we realized that no one was, and no one wanted to. I spoke to people running organizations locally and they said, Oh no, no one works with them. One of the local hospitals wouldn't treat children that were from these families, the other one would, but the families with, I didn't know, they were scared to go to the hospital due to cultural reasons.

so I started thinking, how can I, how can I do something here, natively thinking that I could, you know, do something. And, In the bar I met a group of Canadian paramedics that was on a kind of mission trip, I guess I'm working with the local hospital and I'd started volunteering doing some admin work at the hospital.

Cause I thought, Oh, I can do that. I qualified to do that. And we got to talking and we decided to set up like a straight clinic, where these families could come to get kind of preliminary medical care, like assessed for deeper issues and referred to the hospital if they needed. And that was the star of future Cambodia fund.

That was kind of where it started in terms of the seed of the idea being planted that I could potentially do more here. I never intended or wanted to open an organization. but I, and I tried to talk to other charities that were working locally. but nobody really had funds or interest in working with this particular group of people.

so being very young and naive and idealistic, I was, I thought, Oh, I could do this. so that's, that's how it happened.

Hard Lessons Learned Starting A NGO In Her 20's

Brandon Stover: [00:10:19] What were some of the lessons that you ended up learning about social responsibility doing future cambodia fund?

Leigh Mathews: [00:10:27] I learned that there's a whole lot of ineffective aid out there. And a lot of, donors just wanting boxes, tipped to say, you know, we built 10 Wells, but no interest in the fact that perhaps these Wells went functioning after six months, or there was no oversight in the quality of the well digging so that they were, they were now, , they had aresnic through them, so they weren't usable.

I learned that there are a lot of people like me, young people that were very idealistic that came to a place like Cambodia and were very moved by what they saw and decided to set up an organization. I saw a proliferation of those organizations and volunteers coming in or for that. I learned that running a charity is really, really, really hard. and. That I, I needed mentorship and guidance through that time that I didn't have access to.

I learned that the Australian media and community really props up young people like me that go in and, seem to be selfless. And, and really kind of, that's what I call hero worshiping. So, you know, here's this young girl that gave up her early twenties to care for the poor Cambodian children. That's the narrative in the media.

On reflection I think that it's really harmful because it kind of engages other people in that narrative, all the young people, and they went to emulate that and they think it's fine to go as a 21 year old or a 23 year old and start an orphanage or start a charity when they qualifications and no, no, no real kind of social license operate or be there.

So, yes, a lot of lessons. Funding, it's really hard to come across as very competitive. A lot of projects are donor driven. And by that, I mean, if the donor feels like they want to fund something, then the organization has to completely pivot or else they don't get the funding. and I came out of that experience very much, very disillusioned with the international development sector and didn't really want anything to do with it for a long time.

Brandon Stover: [00:12:44] And when did you start to realize that, you know, the good intentions that you may be doing are actually causing more harm or not doing the good that you thought they might have in the beginning?

Leigh Mathews: [00:12:55] I think looking back there was always that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I didn't quite know what I didn't quite know enough. and I, I am somebody that. You know, I love learning and I will research and research and research until I know her. That was really difficult to do whilst running a charity and having staff and running programs. And I ended up being completely burnt out, as, as well as disillusioned. And I think it took me a few years to stop having conversations with other people that had done the same thing. To start being critical of their, you know, the young people that found organizations like me, and to kind of say, well, what went wrong? What didn't I know, and why didn't I know it.

It comes down to education traditional education, but also life edgy, you know, education, cultural knowledge, language acquisition, all sorts of things that really contribute to being able to make a meaningful difference in people's lives and not cause more harm.

Working in child protection, particularly in international child protection, you see a lot of people who are very moved by what they witnessed. And rightly so. And a move to, yeah, something up or make a project. And I started to see a lot of the harms that caused particularly in orphanages Through that, I think I did a lot more self exploration around why we do these things. Why do we start projects? Why do we think that we know? And we can come into these countries and set up an orphanage as a 21 year old. That's still effectively a child, you know? Yeah. Yeah.

The Little Known Secret About Voluntourism

Brandon Stover: [00:14:48] Can you speak to some of the things that you were trying to change? I mean, you talk a lot about voluntourism and, some of the things that you were trying to do with like rethink orphanages network?

Leigh Mathews: [00:14:57] Yeah, sure.  Rethink orphanages was started by myself and my colleague, Rebecca nep. I had both lived and worked in Cambodia in the child protection sector for a long time. And we didn't meet in Cambodia though. We met in Australia. We sat down in a cafe one day and we were talking about how problematic the huge increase in volunteers going to orphanage while orphanages was in Cambodia. we were discussing. What the government was trying to do to prevent children entering orphanages. And we thought, look really mad that the government in Cambodia does at this point, if we don't work to address or STEM the flow of people and money and resources from places like Australia, too orphanages in Cambodia and other places. It doesn't matter what policies the government puts in place.

Those three things that the flow of the people, money and resources, far too powerful to really have anything impact on what the government's trying to do. The government wouldn't be able to overcome those factors, that economy of supply and demand. so we tried to come together and bring a group of organizations and individuals from all different sectors that we knew impacted orphanages.

So the education in sector, the charity sector, the, the travel sector, obviously. And the faith sector. Are all really big it as to the institutionalization of children. so we, we bought representatives and organizations from those sectors together to discuss a coordinated strategy to stop sending volunteers to orphanages and stop funding orphanages and stop setting up, setting up orphanages.

And that coordinated strategy bore in government as well in Australia. And we were fortunate enough to have a champion within senior levels of government who was able to get off the issue of institutionalization and orphanage trafficking recognized as a form of modern slavery in Australia. Which we are the first country in the world to do so

Brandon Stover: [00:17:20] Just to give our listeners kind of a picture of what this really looks like. Can you share a story that you had mentioned before about children kind of being trafficking into what was being labeled as a school being told to their parents, but it was actually could be to use them as you know, to get revenue from these volunteers coming in?

Leigh Mathews: [00:17:40] Yeah, sure. So what you're talking about is orphanage trafficking. And when we say that, we mean that children are, one way or another moved from their homes into an orphanage for the purposes of exploitation. so what often happens and I can use the example of Nepal. Families or communities, often very remote and very far away from decent education or quality education, and parents in these remote communities like old parents everywhere wants the best for their children and want to allow them to have a quality education.

And so what happens is Scouts from orphanages come travel a long way. Sometimes days and days of walking through the mountains to these remote communities and say, I come from a boarding school. If you pay me, I'll take your child to Katmandu and they will live in a boarding school and they'll come home on the holidays. You'll get regular reports. And of course the parents scraped together everything that they have. And often the scout will take a bunch of children from one village and do the days long Trek back to Katmandu.

The parents think that their children are In the boarding school, the scout has also been paid by the orphanage. So they're getting a double payment. Holidays roll around and the child doesn't come home or they're not getting regular reports. And eventually the parents might have pulled to Katmandu to the boarding school and find that the boarding school doesn't exist. And that these children have actually been placed in orphanages, had their records falsified to be what we call paper orphans.

and in some cases there's a few cases where they've been adopted internationally. but often children can be bought and sold and leased between orphanages. for example, if this child's good at traditional dancing and this child's too old and we want a younger child, they can be moved between orphanages and all of this is for the purpose of having children in orphanages so that foreigners can come and volunteer with those children or donate to that orphanage. And the worse conditions the child, the children are kept in, the more money comes in. so that's, that's what we mean when we talk about orphanage trafficking. Yeah. And that is a real problem in many, many places, but particularly being documented in Nepal.

The Exploitation Of Emotion

Brandon Stover: [00:20:24] I think it's just like a very good picture of, you know, what's going on. And when I was hearing some of this stuff myself, You know, as humans, we have this like inate response to you want to do something good. To do something for others. But we don't always realize that the good that we think we're doing is not actually doing good.

You have a article that's written about basically the way we make decisions about how we do good. And a lot of that is based on our emotional responses. I was curious how we can start making more intentional decisions about, the organization's want to align with, or things we want to do and not have it be entirely driven by emotion?

Leigh Mathews: [00:21:04] I think it's important to note that emotion is really that their base driver for us wanting to, to help. and the reason we want to help is to ease somebody else's discomfort. But also our own discomfort because it elicits strong emotions like sadness or frustration or helplessness. And so we are moved to take action to get rid of that in our own bodies, as well as alleviate the suffering of something else or someone else.

so I think it's important to know that, you know, emotion is why we do good and that's not a bad thing. It's about being not solely driven by that. It's about being able to step out of the emotional space and take a rational view or logical view in terms of decision making. So, right. I'm moved by this issue. I want to help, I want to do something. Now's the time to step back and do some critical thinking, some research, understand a little bit more about the issue.

I'll use orphanages as an example because it's a really good one. It moves a lot of people. This idea that there are millions of children without parents living in orphanages that are desperate for our love and care, which is not true. but it moves us that story, that narrative moves us.

And so we might be kind of inclined to go, Oh, here's some money. I'll, here's an orphanage. Here's some money. Instantly, I feel relieved. I've done something I've helped those children. But you might want to step back and go, Whoa, those children in orphanages, you know what actually going on. And did we have orphanages in our own countries? Is that standard practice, now? I wonder where their parents are?

You know, and once you start asking these questions and doing a bit of research, you can start to see the surface and dig a little bit deeper and realize that, you know, 80% of children in orphanages have parents, the primary driver for being in an orphanage is poverty.

actually that might lead you down a path of realizing that perhaps funding the orphanage, which is at the end of the road. Maybe we can fund things that actually prevent sure being separated from their families in the first place. Maybe we should donate to organizations that improve livelihoods for parents, that help bring them out of poverty.

Maybe we should fund the education programs that keep kids in school so that the cycle doesn't continue. You know, maybe we can look at providing funding for trauma therapy programs. You know, countries where there's been a lot of conflict, conflict and children and their parents haven't yeah. A lot of psychological pain and damage from that.

So it's about really getting clear on what the issue is, and then doing your research and finding a way to support that in a longterm sustainable way, that's going to have impact over time. And he's not just band-aiding. And in fact, causing far greater problems in the future.

Brandon Stover: [00:24:26] Companies and their marketers are pretty aware of this emotional response and are oftentimes trying to elicit us from it. can you explain the idea of poverty porn?

Leigh Mathews: [00:24:36] Yeah, poverty porn, the best example I can give. And one of them will be very familiar is, when we were doing a lot of people were doing the 40 hour famine. Do you have that? Did you have that over there?

Brandon Stover: [00:24:50] It doesn't ring a bell.

Leigh Mathews: [00:24:53] it might be an Australian thing. But, back when I was at school, we had a fundraising kind of movement called the 40 hour famine, which you did once a year.

And it was run by an organization called world vision. and the idea was that you didn't eat for 40 hours and you raised money. And a lot of the marketing around that was, you know, starving african children with distended, bellies flies crawling in their eyes and their mouth and sad music. And those children looking very sick and vulnerable.

That is poverty porn. Poverty porn is when we, presented with visual imagery of children or vulnerable adults that look sick, malnourished, dirty, you know, in a doc lighting behind bars, things like that. And that is designed specifically, typically to tap into that emotion that we have, that we want to help. We moved to help when we see somebody's suffering like that. And it's really clever, you know, it brings in to play psychology and all of the tricks that might it's using every aspect of life. but the problem with it is that it's an undignified representation of a human being of a real person that you know, it has to live with the knowledge, and in many cases they don't know, or haven't provided consent, but they are forever attached to an image of suffering. And this is particularly relevant when we talk about children.

And there was a case in Australia, not so long ago, a few years ago where a charity had three children who were dirty lighting was dark dressed in kind of raggedy cars in Cambodia, holding up signs, saying future sex worker. Future, I think traffic, traffic person or something like that. Is, you know, an eight year old girl holding up a sign that went all over the internet, all over social media saying future sex worker. It's incredibly problematic and he's very, is a breach of the rights of that child. There's no way she could have given informed consent to know what that would mean.

Brandon Stover: [00:27:12] Yeah, a big question around the idea of does the ends justify the means, you know, with this type of marketing, because it is effective. And if you know, the money is going towards an organization that actually is doing good, like the money gets to put to good use. Should we elicit those types of responses to get more money because it's actually being used for good or, you know, are there better ways to go about it?

Leigh Mathews: [00:27:34] I think that's a really good question. as a, as a child protection practitioner, I will always come back to the right. So the individual child, and to me, portraying children in that way is a breach of their right to dignity and their right to privacy. And their ability to give consent. And so I don't think that one child's rights should be breached in order to, to raise money for his or her care or other children's care.

I think there are better ways to portray the challenges that we have socially. At a global level, and children should be depicted if they're to be depicted at all. as you know, they present as mostly in their life, which has happy, laughing, children playing with their friends. You know, it's, it's a moment in time that's often staged based on the images and that's really, really problematic because the internet means that it never ever goes away.

Brandon Stover: [00:28:43] I think, you know, we know what on the marketing end, you know, the sort of responses that we can elicit with the negative aspects, but if we focused on, you know, the positive aspects and really trying to optimize, we could, you know, get a very similar level of response, both ways. I think.

Leigh Mathews: [00:29:00] Absolutely. I think, Peter singer, who I interviewed on my podcast, who's a philosopher at Princeton university. He's an Australian philosopher though. he was talking about some nice studies coming out that have shown that positive representations of people are equally as effective. but I think on the other side of that, and it goes back to the question you asked earlier is that we as the consumer and the donor have a responsibility to also educate ourselves to do better and to not be the person that responds to these marketing messages that are exploitative. I think that the onus is certainly on the charities that do it, but we as individuals should be taking some of that onus back as well.

Brandon Stover: [00:29:48] Yeah. What roles and responsibilities do you think like media and education plays in investigating or delivering a view of this project?

Leigh Mathews: [00:30:01] I think the education system plays a really big role in, Prepping young people for white savior ism. I like to call it privileged saviorism as well. In a lot of schools, it is indoctrinated into people from the very first year of school that you are privileged and you should help others.

and whether that it comes from a faith based perspective or not, I think it really it's really pushed. And by the time young people get, to the kind of the age of 15 or 16 often they'll go and engage on a, on a school trip. Or a mission trip where they get to live out that ideal, that they've been told that, that they can help.

so I think there's a, there's a real issue that around creating this mindset of I am the savior. Yeah, I'm the helper. I've got something to offer rather than actually trading young people. Where they are in their life. So the age and stage of life that they're at, which is learning. So, you know, rather than going and building a you know, a heart or digging some trenches and getting dirty and really, you know, as a way to check your privilege. But for me, it really just cements your privilege, but you know, or volunteering in an orphanage, why don't we go and learn. Learn about the complex social issues that are driving poverty in these places or driving women to be disempowered or children, to not access education, you know, treat young people as learners because that's what they are. And they will be equipped to make change at a greater level as they grow. As for media, I think media really does play a role in perpetuating that hero narrative, you know, that savior narrative. And, like I said earlier, you know, I experienced that. I had a bunch of media articles done on me. You know, youngest Chilean woman gives up her early twenties and, it doesn't help.

It doesn't help have difficult conversations around whether we have a right to go in and do this. it's just a shooting that we do. And a good example is, somebody went and started an orphanage in Cambodia and they'd been running it for years. they were young when they started it. When we spoke to them about the government policies and requirements and regulatory requirements around orphanages, they said, Oh no, there's no laws here. There's no rules.

So there's an assumption that nothing's going on. The government's not doing anything so therefore they have license to do whatever they want. And that's really problematic. And I think that comes from the media perpetuating these ideas that you can go into countries in the global South, or, you know, what other people call developing countries and just go and set up, set up, shop.

How To Solve Wicked Problems In The World

Brandon Stover: [00:33:05] A lot of the problems that we've been talking about are what you call wicked problems. How might we be able to work towards better solutions to these specifically like in a cooperative structure rather than like a top down approach? As many of these are.

Leigh Mathews: [00:33:19] Yeah, I think that's the key to tackling wicked problems. And I think, you know, we can problems themselves are not solvable. That's why we call them wicked. And, they're particularly not solvable because you can't come at it from one angle. And when you come at it from one angle, you cause problems on the other side of the coin.

The only way to tackle this is collaboratively and is with the systems thinking or systems design approach. And that involves really taking a step back from that top down hierarchical approach of where he had to solve your problems and actually going, we don't, we don't know what do you know and bringing everybody on an equal playing field rather than just because you have the money and you're the donor, or you've got 30 years experience running an organization, you don't necessarily know more. And I think that's the key is, is listening and learning and not assuming that, you know,

Brandon Stover: [00:34:28] How do we start to get to the cores of these problems? So, like for example, you've written about, you know, fighting poverty, we need to first dismantle the structures that support it and perpetuate it. So, you know, with all these wicked problems, how do we really get to the core of what the problem is?

Leigh Mathews: [00:34:46] Well, I think the core of the problem is the structures. I think, you know, we live in a capitalist world that pushes the individual achievement and wealth, at the expense of the collective or the community. The international development or the aid system itself is built on colonial structures.

It's, you know, and it's an oxymoron because you know, it goes in to try to solve the problem that colonialism caused, but itself is a colonial structure. And I think. You know, dismantling that system will take a really, really long time. And I think it will be less of a dismantling and more of a slow shift to a different way of operating.

But we need to be having the difficult conversations that are starting to happen now around racism and around colonialism and around how the aid sector perpetuates itself. You know, it causes problems so it can fix them. and that those are the hard conversations I think we need to be having.

Brandon Stover: [00:35:57] Yeah, I think you also give a pretty good, explanation about working in those communities and having it become like the solutions come from those communities rather than a reliance on whoever is coming in to kind of solve the problem.

Leigh Mathews: [00:36:12] Yeah. Yeah, definitely. And I think, you know, that that can be really challenging for example, post-conflict countries that have been really conditioned to rely on aid. and you know, some of the primary kind of. Industry. So sectors are the aid sector and it can be hard to unravel or unpack that mindset and come back to a really basic community level conversation about what's best and what do you want and how do we get there? and it, it is complex and it's almost a wicked problem in itself because you know, organizations that want, may want to facilitate these type of programs or compensations are constrained by the wheel of the donor driven kind of reporting cycle. So what if the community doesn't come to a conclusion within the six months time that have been allocated for that portion of money to be spent?

You know, it's, it's hard because it's it doesn't nicely fit into a box and donors and reporting structures and even big NGOs like to box things up and, and have them fit into a specific timeline.

How To Find Good Charities To Work With

Brandon Stover: [00:37:32] I want to talk a little bit, cause you do some consulting work for businesses and you know, the ones that want to align with a certain mission or something that they're doing. How do you help a business who decide, you know, what missions they want to align with?

Leigh Mathews: [00:37:48] I think it's really important first before you align with anything is to work out what your values are, and align with something that meets that. And so when I work with companies, we do some work around values and we try to understand the ecosystem within which they operate.

A good example is I work with a client, that  works with women that run small businesses. I really neat fit and something that fits with their values is supporting women that are marginalized or escaping, you know, family violence or things like that. so there's, there's a really good alignment. So that's the first thing it's going. Doesn't it align with? The core business that I'm delivering is that part of my ecosystem where my clients, my suppliers, you know, the wider community that I operate in.

And then secondly, it's about developing a framework, an ethical framework for giving that really specifies what you will and weren't support and why. For my own business, we don't support anything to do with the institutionalization of children and less, it is effectively working to prevent it, you know?

So, so having a clear framework of what we will and want support and why helps us make decisions about, you know, if something comes up and I haven't. Triggered with that emotional response. And I want to help, I can refer back and go, no, actually this is, this is what keeps us on track. This is what we're doing. And this is how we can have a longterm sustainable impact and actually measure it over time and say, you know what? Over the past five years, because we stayed on track, it's aligned with our values. We're measuring it. This is what we've been able to achieve.

Brandon Stover: [00:39:48] How do you set up those like impact metrics so that you know if your money's actually going towards something good?

Leigh Mathews: [00:39:54] It's really customized to each that I work with. I, because obviously they have different levels of ability to contribute and it might not be financial. It might be in kind, might be offering, people access to existing products. What we do is we set up an internal system that measures, it also relies on the organizations that we partner with to be able to measure that impact as well. And then to integrate that into how we've done in our own ecosystem. And then that results in reporting. I think it's really important for business owners to understand that doing good, shouldn't be siloed off to the side. It shouldn't be a tokenistic end of year donation. It should be something that's really integrated into the DNA of your business. And it should be Applied across everything that you do. So it's kind of taking a step back and looking at everything the business does, supply chains, customers advertising, everything and going, where can we do better? And then. focusing in on, on what cause do we want to support? And then that's where that investment starts to pay back.

I think it's, it's a myth that, you know, you shouldn't make money off it doing good. I think plenty of businesses can make money off aligning with causes that resonate with their community, their suppliers. Their clients. and you will see that return to you over and over because you're really living purpose, you know, through your business.

And that's where I get. A lot of companies will invest in consultants for marketing, you know, Financial advice and things like that, but they think they've got it with the doing good side. And I want to say like the desire to do good is great, but the potential to cause immense harm through your doing good is also there. And that's why you need to kind of engage with people that can help you understand and align.

Brandon Stover: [00:42:11] Yeah, I think, your advice about, you know, aligning with in a sector that, you know, you're a part of, and then also treating it as a major part of your business is really important because now you are going to do the same amount of research. You're going to put the same amount of effort and attention that you would put maybe towards your marketing or whatever, but towards this part too. So you don't just react from that emotion. As well as if the domain that you're aligning with is part of your knowledge that you have more ability to recognize, Oh, is our money actually doing something good in this sector?

Leigh Mathews: [00:42:46] Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And you know, hopefully you're working in a sector that means something to you and you, you know, moves you in some way. And you know, a lot about that sector and you arrive, you know, it's more of a motivation and you're improving whatever it is that you're involved in by engaging with causes that work in that space.

Brandon Stover: [00:43:10] Do you think we should do good work in our own communities or areas where we have more control rather than extending ourselves to other areas?

Leigh Mathews: [00:43:19] Yes, I think, I think the ability to have a greater impact over time. So sustainably is there. a really basic example is if you work for six months on an issue in your local community that you know really well, and you can regularly engage in versus going and building a house for a week in a Farfan country that you know nothing about, of course the impact is going to be greater. Of course, your sense of achievement is going to be greater. Your knowledge of the issue is going to increase. And hopefully you become more of an advocate for that issue and you can see the change.

You go Into, you know, as small community and build a house for a week. You'll never really hear anything about it other than perhaps an occasional newsletter from the organization that you did it with.  so yes, I would say work in your own community over time.

The Key Insight From Dozens Of Do Gooders

Brandon Stover: [00:44:18] what insights from the people that you've interviewed on your own podcast, I've kind of shifted your thinking about this stuff?

Leigh Mathews: [00:44:26] I started the podcast really to understand why people do good. You know, I think at a, from a kind of psychological perspective. Yes. It's about emotional, you know, it's, it's about that pure, basic elicit of eliciting of emotion, but I wanted to understand what drives them to engage in a career of doing good. what have they learned over time? What frustrations, what challenges, what we could problems do they have? And I think. You know what, I'm, what I'm learning over three seasons now, is that in just the sense of injustice drives a lot of peopl e. That they can't deal with what they're seeing in the world and they want to make change.

And the way that they do it is so different. You know, some people take a very traditional route and go through. You know, university working in UN agencies, and then they come out the other side. Yeah. Well, this system is really, really messed up. and then others like me kind of do it completely around the other way, but we also seem to be coming to the same conclusion, but the system is quite messed up So many people are causing so much harm without realizing it. and, and I think, I think what, what keeps getting cemented for me is that. People inherently want to do good. They want to help. And our world has made it so easy for them to do so. You know, technology, I've talked about this before you can purchase it  pair of pants online, shopping, and you can click one little button and donate $2 to whichever organization has aligned with that company. And you don't, you get a little, you know, a little, we, I did something good for a few seconds and it's what is $2, but you don't know anything about that organization and nor are you kind of inclined to go and look. Look it up really? Unless you have someone like me, that's forever. Okay. What is that? What is that?

So I think what I'm realizing is the weld has made it very, yeah. Easy for us to engage in what we think is doing good, and require very little critical thinking of us. And I think the way to solve that is through companies doing better at doing good, through individuals, having critical thinking and research skills and understanding these issues and that they have a great deal of power. and for organizations delivering projects to also do better, I think, you know, it's a system, again, a systems approach.

Brandon Stover: [00:47:28] what personally drives you to do good?

Leigh Mathews: [00:47:30] That in the sense of injustice for me has been really, really strong since I was young. I think at first kind of redid its head around animal welfare. When I became a vegan, when I was 11 and. You know, I I've always felt a great deal of it. Empathy for people that suffer and animals that suffer. but I never thought that I would make a career out of it.

And I certainly never thought I would, that career would evolve into picking apart the idea of doing good. If I think about, and I talk to my clients about this, like what issue puts a fire in your belly? What is it that really brings up all of those emotions? And for me, it's children and injustice. So, you know, whether that's lack of access to education, whether that's, you know, being living in abusive or violent communities or families, that that is the thing for me that really drives me to want to engage in doing good, but also to do better at it because I've seen the harm that people trying to help her causing.

How Leigh Believes We Can Push The World To Evolve

Have difficult conversations... That for me is key to unpicking the complexities of what is wrong in the world. Being willing to have uncomfortable conversations about what you have done or want to do. Be willing to change what you think is doing good. It's really about taking the responsibility to educate ourselves and doing that through uncomfortable conversations.

Selected Links & Resources From This Episode

Connect With Leigh Mathews:

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Want to hear another expert who has helped hundreds of social entrepreneurs? — Listen to my conversation with Tony Loyd, social leadership development expert & best-selling author of Crazy Good Advice: 10 Lessons Learned from 150 Leading Social Entrepreneurs.

FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Leigh Mathews Interview

Leigh Mathews: [00:00:02] a lot of the marketing around that was, you know, starving african children with distended, bellies flies crawling in their eyes and their mouth and sad music. And those children looking very sick and vulnerable. That is poverty porn. Poverty porn is when we, presented with visual imagery of children or vulnerable adults that look sick, malnourished, dirty, doc lighting behind bars, things like that.  

Brandon Stover: [00:00:53] Hey everyone. Welcome to evolve.

Today's guest is an author, speaker, social purpose coach, and highly experienced consultant with over 15 years in corporate social responsibility, philanthropy and international development sectors.

Starting in her early twenties, she found an NGO in Cambodia, working on child rights issues after witnessing children living in extreme poverty. No good deed goes unpunished as she was awarded the Victorian young Australian of the year, Australian leadership award, and the JCI 10 outstanding young persons of the  world award. Yet, she would soon learn the world was not, as it seems.

After the hit the 2008 financial crisis, she closed her NGO and started questioning the effectiveness of the charity sector. And if doing good was actually having a positive effect on social problems. And so she began her work with organizations, such as UN women, world challenge, Intrepid group, and dozens, more to achieve aligned, ethical, and sustainable impact.

Still disturbed by the institutionalism of children inside orphanages. She co-founded the rethink orphanages network, which is shifting the way countries in the global North, engage with overseas aid and development and has expanded operations from Australia to Europe and the U S. She's internationally recognized as an ethics expert for the intersection between development, business and philanthropy.

And she's been featured in ABC, the guardian project, sending kit Swinburne, university of technology, global journalists and dozens more media outlets. Additionally, she said on the Victorian government school for student leadership school council, and as a member of the advisory board for Australian volunteers, international child safe, volunteering hub. And if that wasn't enough, she is also the coauthor modern day slavery and orphanage tourism, and the host of the good problem podcast.

I'm honored to welcome founder and expert consultant at Alto global and a woman who regularly does household chores when wearing his live snake around as a necklace Leigh Matthews.

Leigh Mathews: [00:02:57] thank you so much for that wonderful introduction. And I'm so pleased to be here. I see you. you've been looking at my Instagram profile.

Brandon Stover: [00:03:08] I like to get a full sense of who I'm interviewing. So

Leigh Mathews: [00:03:11] Yes, I do. My son has a children's Python called Lego. and yes, she often accompanies me whilst cooking dinner.

Young, Naive, & Passion To Help OthersBrandon Stover: [00:03:21] very nice. Talk to me a little about, as I mentioned before, we got on the call, you know, doing a lot of research and just having my eyes open. Take me back to when you were first on your first trip in Cambodia and kind of that feeling that you got during that trip.

Leigh Mathews: [00:03:36] I went to Cambodia on the way back from a long. Kind of working holiday or if it sees, I guess, a backpacking holiday. And I went there specifically with the intention of volunteering, I organized a volunteer placement before, and it was to be my last stop on a kind of world trip. And I'd never volunteered before.

So I didn't really know what I was in for, but I kind of thought, yeah, I can, I can do this.  On the way there I stopped Vietnam and I inadvertently ended up doing a day of volunteering at, at an orphanage for children with disabilities. So that was my kind of first experience. And it was a situation where I didn't intend to do it. I was staying in a bathroom is hostile. And I saw our poster on the wall that said, come and fall into ya. And I talked to some of the other backpackers and they said, Oh, you know, you haven't really done Hoyan, unless you've volunteered at the orphanage. Now Hoyan, for those of you that don't know is a small city in central Vietnam.

And, I was kind of thinking, Oh, that's so strange, but okay. If that's what you do. Okay. and so I went along and turned up at this orphanage for children with severe disabilities. And I was very, very confronted with what I saw there. I'd never been around children with such severe disabilities before. I'd never been into an orphanage. I didn't, I didn't know what I was going to bedoing. And I felt. You know, a whole range of complex and overwhelming emotions. You know, sadness, helplessness, but also a really strong feeling that I shouldn't be there. that I didn't know the language that I didn't know how to care for these children, that they couldn't tell me whether they wanted me to be doing what I was doing.

It was a room full of foreign young foreign volunteers, backpackers, feeding and bathing and dressing, very, very vulnerable children with severe disabilities. And I left feeling very uncomfortable and chose not to go back the following day, but I really didn't know or why I didn't, I didn't have the kind of framework or the words to describe why.

I just, it was a feeling in the pit of my stomach that it wasn't right. But I continued on to Cambodia. And I got there and I, started my volunteer placement, which was teaching English in a small village, about 25 to 30 kilometers outside of a place called Seimreap. And I had to cycle there and back every day.

And I turned up on my first day. No teaching training, no qualifications to be a teacher whatsoever. In fact, a really disjointed education myself. And there were all these faces. It says looking up at me, expecting something. I, you know, I had this moment of going, I can't do this. I don't, I don't know what I'm doing.

but I kind of dug in and took a deep breath and went, alright, let's do it. And you know, parents were looking through the windows, there was a cow right outside that would chickens three, you know, in the, in the classroom. And I remember thinking, what am I doing? Like, what am I doing? And no guidance was provided around how to teach what to teach, what they'd been taught before.

What a previous volunteer had done. So I just started from scratch. I started at ABC and, you know, looking back. Okay. I think that the children and the, the teacher that was already, we're too polite to say, we've already done this. Oh, you know, countless volunteers have already done that.  I persisted for a few weeks and I just couldn't get rid of that feeling in the pit of my stomach, that it wasn't right. That I shouldn't be doing it, that I wasn't qualified.

Brandon Stover: [00:07:41] Is this, what kind of,

Leigh Mathews: [00:07:42] Yeah.

Brandon Stover: [00:07:42] this, what drove you to start the future Cambodia fund?

Leigh Mathews: [00:07:46] Yeah, kind of, I decided to stop going to my volunteer placement, but, in the meantime, I had taken a night job working in a bar cause I'd run out of money on my backpacking trip. so I'd taken a night job working in a bar in central simreap. this was back in 2004.

So it was not, if your listeners have been to Siemreap, it's very different. There were no traffic lights, no banks, no supermarkets. There was one straight with a couple of bars on it and that's it. and so I was working in a bar and. There are a lot of street children and their family is around. And I got to know some of those kids and their families. I kind of started, I'm thinking, well, what's, what's in place for them. What who's providing support for them.

And I, we realized that no one was, and no one wanted to. I spoke to people running organizations locally and they said, Oh no, no one works with them. One of the local hospitals wouldn't treat children that were from these families, the other one would, but the families with, I didn't know, they were scared to go to the hospital due to cultural reasons.

so I started thinking, how can I, how can I do something here, natively thinking that I could, you know, do something. And, In the bar I met a group of Canadian paramedics that was on a kind of mission trip, I guess I'm working with the local hospital and I'd started volunteering doing some admin work at the hospital.

Cause I thought, Oh, I can do that. I qualified to do that. And we got to talking and we decided to set up like a straight clinic, where these families could come to get kind of preliminary medical care, like assessed for deeper issues and referred to the hospital if they needed. And that was the star of future Cambodia fund.

That was kind of where it started in terms of the seed of the idea being planted that I could potentially do more here. I never intended or wanted to open an organization. but I, and I tried to talk to other charities that were working locally. but nobody really had funds or interest in working with this particular group of people.

so being very young and naive and idealistic, I was, I thought, Oh, I could do this. so that's, that's how it happened.

Hard Lessons Learned Starting A NGO In Her 20's

Brandon Stover: [00:10:19] What were some of the lessons that you ended up learning about social responsibility doing future cambodia fund?

Leigh Mathews: [00:10:27] I learned that there's a whole lot of ineffective aid out there. And a lot of, donors just wanting boxes, tipped to say, you know, we built 10 Wells, but no interest in the fact that perhaps these Wells went functioning after six months, or there was no oversight in the quality of the well digging so that they were, they were now, , they had aresnic thrrough them, so they weren't usable.

I learned that there are a lot of people like me, young people that were very idealistic that came to a place like Cambodia and were very moved by what they saw and decided to set up an organization. I saw a proliferation of those organizations and volunteers coming in or for that. I learned that running a charity is really, really, really hard. and. That I, I needed mentorship and guidance through that time that I didn't have access to.

I learned that the Australian media and community really props up young people like me that go in and, seem to be selfless. And, and really kind of, that's what I call hero worshiping. So, you know, here's this young girl that gave up her early twenties to care for the poor Cambodian children. That's the narrative in the media.

On reflection I think that it's really harmful because it kind of engages other people in that narrative, all the young people, and they went to emulate that and they think it's fine to go as a 21 year old or a 23 year old and start an orphanage or start a charity when they qualifications and no, no, no real kind of social license operate or be there.

So, yes, a lot of lessons. Funding, it's really hard to come across as very competitive. A lot of projects are donor driven. And by that, I mean, if the donor feels like they want to fund something, then the organization has to completely pivot or else they don't get the funding. and I came out of that experience very much, very disillusioned with the international development sector and didn't really want anything to do with it for a long time.

Brandon Stover: [00:12:44] And when did you start to realize that, you know, the good intentions that you may be doing are actually causing more harm or not doing the good that you thought they might have in the beginning?

Leigh Mathews: [00:12:55] I think looking back there was always that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I didn't quite know what I didn't quite know enough. and I, I am somebody that. You know, I love learning and I will research and research and research until I know her. That was really difficult to do whilst running a charity and having staff and running programs. And I ended up being completely burnt out, as, as well as disillusioned. And I think it took me a few years to stop having conversations with other people that had done the same thing. To start being critical of their, you know, the young people that found organizations like me, and to kind of say, well, what went wrong? What didn't I know, and why didn't I know it.

It comes down to education traditional education, but also life edgy, you know, education, cultural knowledge, language acquisition, all sorts of things that really contribute to being able to make a meaningful difference in people's lives and not cause more harm.

Working in child protection, particularly in international child protection, you see a lot of people who are very moved by what they witnessed. And rightly so. And a move to, yeah, something up or make a project. And I started to see a lot of the harms that caused particularly in orphanages Through that, I think I did a lot more self exploration around why we do these things. Why do we start projects? Why do we think that we know? And we can come into these countries and set up an orphanage as a 21 year old. That's still effectively a child, you know? Yeah. Yeah.

The Little Known Secret About Voluntourism

Brandon Stover: [00:14:48] Can you speak to some of the things that you were trying to change? I mean, you talk a lot about voluntourism and, some of the things that you were trying to do with like rethink orphanages network.

Leigh Mathews: [00:14:57] Yeah, sure.  Rethink orphanages was started by myself and my colleague, Rebecca nep. I had both lived and worked in Cambodia in the child protection sector for a long time. And we didn't meet in Cambodia though. We met in Australia. We sat down in a cafe one day and we were talking about how problematic the huge increase in volunteers going to orphanage while orphanages was in Cambodia. we were discussing. What the government was trying to do to prevent children entering orphanages. And we thought, look really mad that the government in Cambodia does at this point, if we don't work to address or STEM the flow of people and money and resources from places like Australia, too orphanages in Cambodia and other places. It doesn't matter what policies the government puts in place.

Those three things that the flow of the people, money and resources, far too powerful to really have anything impact on what the government's trying to do. The government wouldn't be able to overcome those factors, that economy of supply and demand. so we tried to come together and bring a group of organizations and individuals from all different sectors that we knew impacted orphanages.

So the education in sector, the charity sector, the, the travel sector, obviously. And the faith sector. Are all really big it as to the institutionalization of children. so we, we bought representatives and organizations from those sectors together to discuss a coordinated strategy to stop sending volunteers to orphanages and stop funding orphanages and stop setting up, setting up orphanages.

And that coordinated strategy bore in government as well in Australia. And we were fortunate enough to have a champion within senior levels of government who was able to get off the issue of institutionalization and orphanage trafficking recognized as a form of modern slavery in Australia. Which we are the first country in the world to do so

Brandon Stover: [00:17:20] Just to give our listeners kind of a picture of what this really looks like. Can you share a story that you had mentioned before about children kind of being trafficking into what was being labeled as a school being told to their parents, but it was actually could be to use them as you know, to get revenue from these volunteers coming in.

Leigh Mathews: [00:17:40] Yeah, sure. So what you're talking about is orphanage trafficking. And when we say that, we mean that children are, one way or another moved from their homes into an orphanage for the purposes of exploitation. so what often happens and I can use the example of Nepal. Families or communities, often very remote and very far away from decent education or quality education, and parents in these remote communities like old parents everywhere wants the best for their children and want to allow them to have a quality education.

And so what happens is Scouts from orphanages come travel a long way. Sometimes days and days of walking through the mountains to these remote communities and say, I come from a boarding school. If you pay me, I'll take your child to Katmandu and they will live in a boarding school and they'll come home on the holidays. You'll get regular reports. And of course the parents scraped together everything that they have. And often the scout will take a bunch of children from one village and do the days long Trek back to Katmandu.

The parents think that their children are In the boarding school, the scout has also been paid by the orphanage. So they're getting a double payment. Holidays roll around and the child doesn't come home or they're not getting regular reports. And eventually the parents might have pulled to Katmandu to the boarding school and find that the boarding school doesn't exist. And that these children have actually been placed in orphanages, had their records falsified to be what we call paper orphans.

and in some cases there's a few cases where they've been adopted internationally. but often children can be bought and sold and leased between orphanages. for example, if this child's good at traditional dancing and this child's too old and we want a younger child, they can be moved between orphanages and all of this is for the purpose of having children in orphanages so that foreigners can come and volunteer with those children or donate to that orphanage. And the worse conditions the child, the children are kept in, the more money comes in. so that's, that's what we mean when we talk about orphanage trafficking. Yeah. And that is a real problem in many, many places, but particularly being documented in Nepal.

The Exploitation Of Emotion

Brandon Stover: [00:20:24] I think it's just like a very good picture of, you know, what's going on. And when I was hearing some of this stuff myself, You know, as humans, we have this like inate response to you want to do something good. To do something for others. But we don't always realize that the good that we think we're doing is not actually doing good.

You have a article that's written about basically the way we make decisions about how we do good. And a lot of that is based on our emotional responses. I was curious how we can start making more intentional decisions about, the organization's want to align with, or things we want to do and not have it be entirely driven by emotion.

Leigh Mathews: [00:21:04] I think it's important to note that emotion is really that their base driver for us wanting to, to help. and the reason we want to help is to ease somebody else's discomfort. But also our own discomfort because it elicits strong emotions like sadness or frustration or helplessness. And so we are moved to take action to get rid of that in our own bodies, as well as alleviate the suffering of something else or someone else.

so I think it's important to know that, you know, emotion is why we do good and that's not a bad thing. It's about being not solely driven by that. It's about being able to step out of the emotional space and take a rational view or logical view in terms of decision making. So, right. I'm moved by this issue. I want to help, I want to do something. Now's the time to step back and do some critical thinking, some research, understand a little bit more about the issue.

I'll use orphanages as an example because it's a really good one. It moves a lot of people. This idea that there are millions of children without parents living in orphanages that are desperate for our love and care, which is not true. but it moves us that story, that narrative moves us.

And so we might be kind of inclined to go, Oh, here's some money. I'll, here's an orphanage. Here's some money. Instantly, I feel relieved. I've done something I've helped those children. But you might want to step back and go, Whoa, those children in orphanages, you know what actually going on. And did we have orphanages in our own countries? Is that standard practice, now? I wonder where their parents are?

You know, and once you start asking these questions and doing a bit of research, you can start to see the surface and dig a little bit deeper and realize that, you know, 80% of children in orphanages have parents, the primary driver for being in an orphanage is poverty.

actually that might lead you down a path of realizing that perhaps funding the orphanage, which is at the end of the road. Maybe we can fund things that actually prevent sure being separated from their families in the first place. Maybe we should donate to organizations that improve livelihoods for parents, that help bring them out of poverty.

Maybe we should fund the education programs that keep kids in school so that the cycle doesn't continue. You know, maybe we can look at providing funding for trauma therapy programs. You know, countries where there's been a lot of conflict, conflict and children and their parents haven't yeah. A lot of psychological pain and damage from that.

So it's about really getting clear on what the issue is, and then doing your research and finding a way to support that in a longterm sustainable way, that's going to have impact over time. And he's not just band-aiding. And in fact, causing far greater problems in the future.

Brandon Stover: [00:24:26] Companies and their marketers are pretty aware of this emotional response and are oftentimes trying to elicit us from it. can you explain the idea of poverty porn?

Leigh Mathews: [00:24:36] Yeah, poverty porn, the best example I can give. And one of them will be very familiar is, when we were doing a lot of people were doing the 40 hour famine. Do you have that? Did you have that over there?

Brandon Stover: [00:24:50] It doesn't ring a bell.

Leigh Mathews: [00:24:53] it might be an Australian thing. But, back when I was at school, we had a fundraising kind of movement called the 40 hour famine, which you did once a year.

And it was run by an organization called world vision. and the idea was that you didn't eat for 40 hours and you raised money. And a lot of the marketing around that was, you know, starving african children with distended, bellies flies crawling in their eyes and their mouth and sad music. And those children looking very sick and vulnerable.

That is poverty porn. Poverty porn is when we, presented with visual imagery of children or vulnerable adults that look sick, malnourished, dirty, you know, in a doc lighting behind bars, things like that. And that is designed specifically, typically to tap into that emotion that we have, that we want to help. We moved to help when we see somebody's suffering like that. And it's really clever, you know, it brings in to play psychology and all of the tricks that might it's using every aspect of life. but the problem with it is that it's an undignified representation of a human being of a real person that you know, it has to live with the knowledge, and in many cases they don't know, or haven't provided consent, but they are forever attached to an image of suffering. And this is particularly relevant when we talk about children.

And there was a case in Australia, not so long ago, a few years ago where a charity had three children who were dirty lighting was dark dressed in kind of raggedy cars in Cambodia, holding up signs, saying future sex worker. Future, I think traffic, traffic person or something like that. Is, you know, an eight year old girl holding up a sign that went all over the internet, all over social media saying future sex worker. It's incredibly problematic and he's very, is a breach of the rights of that child. There's no way she could have given informed consent to know what that would mean.

Brandon Stover: [00:27:12] Yeah, a big question around the idea of does the ends justify the means, you know, with this type of marketing, because it is effective. And if you know, the money is going towards an organization that actually is doing good, like the money gets to put to good use. Should we elicit those types of responses to get more money because it's actually being used for good or, you know, are there better ways to go about it?

Leigh Mathews: [00:27:34] I think that's a really good question. as a, as a child protection practitioner, I will always come back to the right. So the individual child, and to me, portraying children in that way is a breach of their right to dignity and their right to privacy. And their ability to give consent. And so I don't think that one child's rights should be breached in order to, to raise money for his or her care or other children's care.

I think there are better ways to portray the challenges that we have socially. At a global level, and children should be depicted if they're to be depicted at all. as you know, they present as mostly in their life, which has happy, laughing, children playing with their friends. You know, it's, it's a moment in time that's often staged based on the images and that's really, really problematic because the internet means that it never ever goes away.

Brandon Stover: [00:28:43] I think, you know, we know what on the marketing end, you know, the sort of responses that we can elicit with the negative aspects, but if we focused on, you know, the positive aspects and really trying to optimize, we could, you know, get a very similar level of response, both ways. I think.

Leigh Mathews: [00:29:00] Absolutely. I think, Peter singer, who I interviewed on my podcast, who's a philosopher at Princeton university. He's an Australian philosopher though. he was talking about some nice studies coming out that have shown that positive representations of people are equally as effective. but I think on the other side of that, and it goes back to the question you asked earlier is that we as the consumer and the donor have a responsibility to also educate ourselves to do better and to not be the person that responds to these marketing messages that are exploitative. I think that the onus is certainly on the charities that do it, but we as individuals should be taking some of that onus back as well.

Brandon Stover: [00:29:48] Yeah. What roles and responsibilities do you think like media and education plays in investigating or delivering a view of this project?

Leigh Mathews: [00:30:01] I think the education system plays a really big role in, Prepping young people for white savior ism. I like to call it privileged saviorism as well. In a lot of schools, it is indoctrinated into people from the very first year of school that you are privileged and you should help others.

and whether that it comes from a faith based perspective or not, I think it really it's really pushed. And by the time young people get, to the kind of the age of 15 or 16 often they'll go and engage on a, on a school trip. Or a mission trip where they get to live out that ideal, that they've been told that, that they can help.

so I think there's a, there's a real issue that around creating this mindset of I am the savior. Yeah, I'm the helper. I've got something to offer rather than actually trading young people. Where they are in their life. So the age and stage of life that they're at, which is learning. So, you know, rather than going and building a you know, a heart or digging some trenches and getting dirty and really, you know, as a way to check your privilege. But for me, it really just cements your privilege, but you know, or volunteering in an orphanage, why don't we go and learn. Learn about the complex social issues that are driving poverty in these places or driving women to be disempowered or children, to not access education, you know, treat young people as learners because that's what they are. And they will be equipped to make change at a greater level as they grow. As for media, I think media really does play a role in perpetuating that hero narrative, you know, that savior narrative. And, like I said earlier, you know, I experienced that. I had a bunch of media articles done on me. You know, youngest Chilean woman gives up her early twenties and, it doesn't help.

It doesn't help have difficult conversations around whether we have a right to go in and do this. it's just a shooting that we do. And a good example is, somebody went and started an orphanage in Cambodia and they'd been running it for years. they were young when they started it. When we spoke to them about the government policies and requirements and regulatory requirements around orphanages, they said, Oh no, there's no laws here. There's no rules.

So there's an assumption that nothing's going on. The government's not doing anything so therefore they have license to do whatever they want. And that's really problematic. And I think that comes from the media perpetuating these ideas that you can go into countries in the global South, or, you know, what other people call developing countries and just go and set up, set up, shop.

How To Solve Wicked Problems In The World

Brandon Stover: [00:33:05] A lot of the problems that we've been talking about are what you call wicked problems. How might we be able to work towards better solutions to these specifically like in a cooperative structure rather than like a top down approach? As many of these are.

Leigh Mathews: [00:33:19] Yeah, I think that's the key to tackling wicked problems. And I think, you know, we can problems themselves are not solvable. That's why we call them wicked. And, they're particularly not solvable because you can't come at it from one angle. And when you come at it from one angle, you cause problems on the other side of the coin.

The only way to tackle this is collaboratively and is with the systems thinking or systems design approach. And that involves really taking a step back from that top down hierarchical approach of where he had to solve your problems and actually going, we don't, we don't know what do you know and bringing everybody on an equal playing field rather than just because you have the money and you're the donor, or you've got 30 years experience running an organization, you don't necessarily know more. And I think that's the key is, is listening and learning and not assuming that, you know,

Brandon Stover: [00:34:28] How do we start to get to the cores of these problems? So, like for example, you've written about, you know, fighting poverty, we need to first dismantle the structures that support it and perpetuate it. So, you know, with all these wicked problems, how do we really get to the core of what the problem is?

Leigh Mathews: [00:34:46] Well, I think the core of the problem is the structures. I think, you know, we live in a capitalist world that pushes the individual achievement and wealth, at the expense of the collective or the community. The international development or the aid system itself is built on colonial structures.

It's, you know, and it's an oxymoron because you know, it goes in to try to solve the problem that colonialism caused, but itself is a colonial structure. And I think. You know, dismantling that system will take a really, really long time. And I think it will be less of a dismantling and more of a slow shift to a different way of operating.

But we need to be having the difficult conversations that are starting to happen now around racism and around colonialism and around how the aid sector perpetuates itself. You know, it causes problems so it can fix them. and that those are the hard conversations I think we need to be having.

Brandon Stover: [00:35:57] Yeah, I think you also give a pretty good, explanation about working in those communities and having it become like the solutions come from those communities rather than a reliance on whoever is coming in to kind of solve the problem.

Leigh Mathews: [00:36:12] Yeah. Yeah, definitely. And I think, you know, that that can be really challenging for example, post-conflict countries that have been really conditioned to rely on aid. and you know, some of the primary kind of. Industry. So sectors are the aid sector and it can be hard to unravel or unpack that mindset and come back to a really basic community level conversation about what's best and what do you want and how do we get there? and it, it is complex and it's almost a wicked problem in itself because you know, organizations that want, may want to facilitate these type of programs or compensations are constrained by the wheel of the donor driven kind of reporting cycle. So what if the community doesn't come to a conclusion within the six months time that have been allocated for that portion of money to be spent?

You know, it's, it's hard because it's it doesn't nicely fit into a box and donors and reporting structures and even big NGOs like to box things up and, and have them fit into a specific timeline.

How To Find Good Charities To Work With

Brandon Stover: [00:37:32] I want to talk a little bit, cause you do some consulting work for businesses and you know, the ones that want to align with a certain mission or something that they're doing. How do you help a business who decide, you know, what missions they want to align with?

Leigh Mathews: [00:37:48] I think it's really important first before you align with anything is to work out what your values are, and align with something that meets that. And so when I work with companies, we do some work around values and we try to understand the ecosystem within which they operate.

A good example is I work with a client, that  works with women that run small businesses. I really neat fit and something that fits with their values is supporting women that are marginalized or escaping, you know, family violence or things like that. so there's, there's a really good alignment. So that's the first thing it's going. Doesn't it align with? The core business that I'm delivering is that part of my ecosystem where my clients, my suppliers, you know, the wider community that I operate in.

And then secondly, it's about developing a framework, an ethical framework for giving that really specifies what you will and weren't support and why. For my own business, we don't support anything to do with the institutionalization of children and less, it is effectively working to prevent it, you know?

So, so having a clear framework of what we will and want support and why helps us make decisions about, you know, if something comes up and I haven't. Triggered with that emotional response. And I want to help, I can refer back and go, no, actually this is, this is what keeps us on track. This is what we're doing. And this is how we can have a longterm sustainable impact and actually measure it over time and say, you know what? Over the past five years, because we stayed on track, it's aligned with our values. We're measuring it. This is what we've been able to achieve.

Brandon Stover: [00:39:48] How do you set up those like impact metrics so that you know if your money's actually going towards something good?

Leigh Mathews: [00:39:54] It's really customized to each that I work with. I, because obviously they have different levels of ability to contribute and it might not be financial. It might be in kind, might be offering, people access to existing products. What we do is we set up an internal system that measures, it also relies on the organizations that we partner with to be able to measure that impact as well. And then to integrate that into how we've done in our own ecosystem. And then that results in reporting. I think it's really important for business owners to understand that doing good, shouldn't be siloed off to the side. It shouldn't be a tokenistic end of year donation. It should be something that's really integrated into the DNA of your business. And it should be Applied across everything that you do. So it's kind of taking a step back and looking at everything the business does, supply chains, customers advertising, everything and going, where can we do better? And then. focusing in on, on what cause do we want to support? And then that's where that investment starts to pay back.

I think it's, it's a myth that, you know, you shouldn't make money off it doing good. I think plenty of businesses can make money off aligning with causes that resonate with their community, their suppliers. Their clients. and you will see that return to you over and over because you're really living purpose, you know, through your business.

And that's where I get. A lot of companies will invest in consultants for marketing, you know, Financial advice and things like that, but they think they've got it with the doing good side. And I want to say like the desire to do good is great, but the potential to cause immense harm through your doing good is also there. And that's why you need to kind of engage with people that can help you understand and align.

Brandon Stover: [00:42:11] Yeah, I think, your advice about, you know, aligning with in a sector that, you know, you're a part of, and then also treating it as a major part of your business is really important because now you are going to do the same amount of research. You're going to put the same amount of effort and attention that you would put maybe towards your marketing or whatever, but towards this part too. So you don't just react from that emotion. As well as if the domain that you're aligning with is part of your knowledge that you have more ability to recognize, Oh, is our money actually doing something good in this sector?

Leigh Mathews: [00:42:46] Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And you know, hopefully you're working in a sector that means something to you and you, you know, moves you in some way. And you know, a lot about that sector and you arrive, you know, it's more of a motivation and you're improving whatever it is that you're involved in by engaging with causes that work in that space.

Brandon Stover: [00:43:10] Do you think we should do good work in our own communities or areas where we have more control rather than extending ourselves to other areas?

Leigh Mathews: [00:43:19] Yes, I think, I think the ability to have a greater impact over time. So sustainably is there. a really basic example is if you work for six months on an issue in your local community that you know really well, and you can regularly engage in versus going and building a house for a week in a Farfan country that you know nothing about, of course the impact is going to be greater. Of course, your sense of achievement is going to be greater. Your knowledge of the issue is going to increase. And hopefully you become more of an advocate for that issue and you can see the change.

You go Into, you know, as small community and build a house for a week. You'll never really hear anything about it other than perhaps an occasional newsletter from the organization that you did it with.  so yes, I would say work in your own community over time.

The Key Insight From Dozens Of Do Gooders

Brandon Stover: [00:44:18] what insights from the people that you've interviewed on your own podcast, I've kind of shifted your thinking about this stuff?

Leigh Mathews: [00:44:26] I started the podcast really to understand why people do good. You know, I think at a, from a kind of psychological perspective. Yes. It's about emotional, you know, it's, it's about that pure, basic elicit of eliciting of emotion, but I wanted to understand what drives them to engage in a career of doing good. what have they learned over time? What frustrations, what challenges, what we could problems do they have? And I think. You know what, I'm, what I'm learning over three seasons now, is that in just the sense of injustice drives a lot of peopl e. That they can't deal with what they're seeing in the world and they want to make change.

And the way that they do it is so different. You know, some people take a very traditional route and go through. You know, university working in UN agencies, and then they come out the other side. Yeah. Well, this system is really, really messed up. and then others like me kind of do it completely around the other way, but we also seem to be coming to the same conclusion, but the system is quite messed up So many people are causing so much harm without realizing it. and, and I think, I think what, what keeps getting cemented for me is that. People inherently want to do good. They want to help. And our world has made it so easy for them to do so. You know, technology, I've talked about this before you can purchase it  pair of pants online, shopping, and you can click one little button and donate $2 to whichever organization has aligned with that company. And you don't, you get a little, you know, a little, we, I did something good for a few seconds and it's what is $2, but you don't know anything about that organization and nor are you kind of inclined to go and look. Look it up really? Unless you have someone like me, that's forever. Okay. What is that? What is that?

So I think what I'm realizing is the weld has made it very, yeah. Easy for us to engage in what we think is doing good, and require very little critical thinking of us. And I think the way to solve that is through companies doing better at doing good, through individuals, having critical thinking and research skills and understanding these issues and that they have a great deal of power. and for organizations delivering projects to also do better, I think, you know, it's a system, again, a systems approach.

Brandon Stover: [00:47:28] what personally drives you to do good?

Leigh Mathews: [00:47:30] That in the sense of injustice for me has been really, really strong since I was young. I think at first kind of redid its head around animal welfare. When I became a vegan, when I was 11 and. You know, I I've always felt a great deal of it. Empathy for people that suffer and animals that suffer. but I never thought that I would make a career out of it.

And I certainly never thought I would, that career would evolve into picking apart the idea of doing good. If I think about, and I talk to my clients about this, like what issue puts a fire in your belly? What is it that really brings up all of those emotions? And for me, it's children and injustice. So, you know, whether that's lack of access to education, whether that's, you know, being living in abusive or violent communities or families, that that is the thing for me that really drives me to want to engage in doing good, but also to do better at it because I've seen the harm that people trying to help her causing.

Brandon Stover: [00:48:44] Well, before I get to my last question, where can everybody find you in the work that you're doing?

Leigh Mathews: [00:48:48] so you can find my company Alto, which is at www.Altoglobalconsulting.com. You can also find my podcast on my personal website, which is Leigh matthews.com. That's Mathews with one T. my podcast is called the good problem, and you can find it anyway. You find podcasts and I am on. Instagram at underscore Leigh Matthews

How Leigh Believes We Can Push The World To Evolve

Brandon Stover: [00:49:16] awesome. Well, my last question is how can we push the world to evolve?

Leigh Mathews: [00:49:23] have difficult conversations.

Brandon Stover: [00:49:26] Hmm.

Leigh Mathews: [00:49:26] That for me is key to unpicking the complexities of what is wrong in the world. Being willing to have uncomfortable conversations about what you have done or want to do. Be willing to change what you think is doing good.

You know, as, as a white person for me, I consume a lot of content from an Instagram account called no white savior. I find a lot of their content confronting. Educational, reading books about, privilege and power for me are really important. I read an amazing book by an Australian indigenous man academic. his name is Tyson Yancha Porter, and it's called sand talk and it talks about different ways of thinking. so, you know, completely different worldviews and ways of interpreting the world and how we can use those indigenous ways of thinking to solve problems.

So for me, it's really about taking the responsibility to educate ourselves and doing that through uncomfortable conversations.

Brandon Stover: [00:50:47] Yeah, well, that's a great answer. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I'm really grateful for all the work you're doing and the awareness and education that you're giving others.

Leigh Mathews: [00:50:57] Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

About The Host

Brandon Stover

Brandon is an entrepreneur, certified professional coach, and podcast host. His aim is to evolve the individual through education, entertainment, and philosophy so together we can ask the world's biggest questions, build businesses to solve them, & live fulfilling lives in the process.

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