The Road to Hell is Paved With Shitstorms

A plea for restraint when criticising the work of activists, charities and social entrepreneurs.

von Naomi Ryland, January 3, 2019

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. That‘s got to be one of the best sayings of all time. It‘s always been one of my favourites anyway. Maybe because it has that perfect mix of cynicism (British), humour (British) and baseless pessimism (German) that lives inherently in me, as a (newly) German Brit.

But whilst it is a damn good saying, I am turning my back on it. I have sworn to myself never to say it, or even think it again. I have become increasingly convinced that those who succumb to its allures will drive us to our demise. And this is my attempt to convince you to join me.

A couple of years ago, I would have signed up to it. Wholeheartedly. I probably would have put it on a t-shirt. As somebody who has worked in and around the non-profit sector for over 10 years, I have seen a lot of good ideas, incredible people and outstanding outcomes. But I have also seen a lot of wastage, paper-pushers and very occasional big mistakes with serious consequences. 

I have, of course, played my own part in it. The idealist that starts their career at a charity does- not-an-idealist-stay-for-long. The lack of resources, lack of talent, lack of training opportunities, impossibility for long-term planning due to short-sighted funders and policies, and an inherently broken system mean that it is often very difficult to do really good work. That’s not to say that good work doesn’t happen, it’s just difficult. 

So I too, at times, have rolled my eyes at other do-gooders. And that’s ok. It’s important. Just because somebody wants to do good doesn’t mean that they do. And if they’re not doing good, especially if they are doing the opposite - harm - then they absolutely must be held accountable to their stakeholders, from their beneficiaries (as first priority) through to their funders. A constructive discourse can hopefully help them improve and change. Because nobody is perfect.

Nobody is perfect. Not even charity workers. Not even social entrepreneurs. Not even activists. Definitely not politicians. And definitely, definitely not priests. Some are more perfect than others, but everybody is going to make mistakes. 

Things go wrong. All the time. Humans are prone to misjudgments. Projects fail. Businesses go bankrupt. It happens. What is important, as such, is what came before and what comes after. It is important to establish whether the wrongdoing is a systemic issue or just a mistake. Has it happened before? What did the offender do to mitigate for it? How much negativity does the wrongdoing cause vs the good the activity has brought? What will be the effect of a negative reaction on the ‘good’ part? How has the offender responded to the wrongdoing and have they changed their behaviour, policy or strategy as a result? And what were the intentions of the offender in the first place? These are the questions we need to ask, unequivocally, before judging the actions of others.

Because, shitstorms. In these heady days of social media hegemony, shitstorms are everywhere. I love them as much as the next person. It’s thrilling to be out in a storm. And it can make you feel pretty damn good about yourself if you start one. The moral high-ground is a comforting place to be. And writing words in capitals is RIDICULOUSLY satisfying. 

But shitstorms can be incredibly damaging if directed falsely. So this, if anything, is a plea for restraint. Sometimes. 

Shitstorms Destroy Good Organisations

Let’s take the recent Oxfam sex-abuse scandal. Oxfam is a huge conglomeration of NGOs with thousands of employees in over 90 countries in the world. In 2017 it was revealed by the Telegraph that back in 2011 a senior Oxfam member of staff had been discovered to have been using prostitutes in Haiti, during the aftermath of the hurricane. When it was discovered by his manager, there was an investigation and the member of staff in question was made to resign, rather than being fired, which certainly indicates a serious error of judgement. Nevertheless, a press statement was released by the charity about the incident. Policies were introduced and those already in place were tightened.

Predictably, a social media shitstorm immediately followed the article, published several years after the crime itself. The integrity of the entire organisation and all of their work was pulled into question. And donors started leaving. Funders distanced themselves. Prominent ambassadors turned on them. Because it is important for these people to act quickly, whilst still in the eye of the storm, so that they don’t get sucked in too. Because by the time the questions have been answered? By the time a proper investigation has been carried out? Nobody cares anymore. The storm has blown over. The result? Oxfam’s Reputation has been irreparably damaged. Oxfam has been forced to make 16 Mill GBP in cuts to its staff and programmes. Which means that they can do less of their work on fighting poverty. Because that’s the nature of the storm. They are powerful and short-lived. And they leave nothing but destruction in their path. 

Oxfam’s mistake was a very big one. The failure of managers to deal with a rogue employee is outrageous. Reviewing the questions listed above, however, the question must be asked whether the fallout is truly relative to the mistake? Was it evidence of a systemic failure and does it undermine the ultimately good intentions of the organisation?  If we compare this, say, to the VW diesel scandal or the tax evasion policies of most large American corporations such as Google, Amazon or Facebook (not to mention some of their other questionable practices), we have a pretty clear answer. Whilst the latter are systemic and institutionalised efforts to cheat society and the planet, the Oxfam scandal was not. Yet the shitstorms are indiscriminate. The punishment is the same.

Despite having very different intentions and consequences, Oxfam’s loss is equal if not much, much greater than that of VW or google, because damage done to a charity’s brand frequently goes much deeper. When it comes to non-profits or “good” companies, it is almost as if there is a revised moral compass. We expect them to do good, and so when they don’t, it creates a cataclysmic discord that we cannot compute. It leads us to type furiously on our keyboards, to tear down and condemn. Because there isn’t much good in the world these days, and now those nasty do-gooders have taken away the last bit of the straw that we were clutching on to.

There is a great deal of pressure on charities and the like to be perfect. There is, in most of us, a deeply engrained consensus that people trying to do good things should be infallible. This is, unfortunately, tied to the similarly indestructible belief that those who work for good causes should get paid less than those who work for businesses that pursue profit to the cost of human life and the planet. Both assumptions are wrong. And they are going to tear us apart.

Shitstorms Destroy Good People

I saw further evidence of this earlier in the year when reading a very critical blog article, and many equally angry social media posts, about a conference I spoke at called the Female Future Force Day. The Female Future Force Day was created by two of Germany’s most prolific female entrepreneurs, Susann Hoffmann and Nora Wohlert, with the primary intention of empowering women. Mistakes were made in terms of programming, they ran out of headphones for some of the talks and the food and packaging was not always very sustainable. Nonetheless, the majority of the 4000(!) (mostly) women who attended responded in the feedback survey that they found the event good or very good and 55% definitely want to come back next year. Only 8% would not.

Despite this, a very public shitstorm ensued from a minority of those who attended. The response - or rather defence - written a few days later by Susann, was outstanding (and it is of merit that the blogger gave her the opportunity to respond to the critique). Yet it oozed the hurt that she felt at being so publicly shamed, by some of the very people that she had worked so hard to help. And I would not be surprised if Susann and Nora seriously questioned why they bother, when they could do so many other things instead that would be less risky, less confrontational and less (potentially) world-changing. I certainly would have done.

Susann, Nora and her team made mistakes. It was the first time they had organised such a conference. Anybody who has organised an event of any size, let alone one for 4000 people knows that there is a lot of room for error. So criticism is necessary and also welcome, in order that they may do it better next time. But, in this case, this should surely be the only goal of the criticism. It would be ridiculous to suggest that on the basis of a few duff choices in terms of speakers, sponsors and sausages (read the article) there should never be such a conference again. However, if the criticism is framed in such a way as to have other adverse effects, such as demoralising the team and founders or, as in the case of Oxfam, reducing their financial ability to do more of their good work, then the damage done by the critics is likely larger than that done by the act itself.

Shitstorms Destroy Good Intentions

If you are wondering where I am going with this, it is here: good intentions are the only chance we have available to save humanity from an imminent demise. Without these people, with good intentions, who are willing to put themselves out there and try out new things, often at great personal risk, with the main aim of trying to make the world a better place, we are headed down shit creek and there ain’t no paddle. 

But what needs to be clear is that good intentions, too, are easily destroyed. Some of us might know how it feels to be harshly criticised when you have worked hard on something, for the good of others, and really, genuinely tried to do your best. It wears you down, it knocks your confidence, it shakes your foundations. Usually, you know yourself that things have gone wrong and you don’t need somebody else to yell it at you. What you certainly don’t need is somebody publicly shaming and bashing you, when you are trying to pick up the pieces, make good on the mistake, and learn from it. Hopefully, you are resilient enough to take it. But that takes some resilience. For many, little by little, it becomes too much. At the very least, it might “just” mean that you don’t try something new again, or, if even just slightly, reign in your ambitions. Some ultimately give up.

So, whilst this is absolutely not an argument for less criticism of well-intentioned ideas.  It is an argument for restraint with regards the nature of the criticism. Does it need to be public? Does it need to be now? Are there questions to be asked and is there research to be done before the mauling begins? What is going to be the effect on whom? What is the ultimate goal of the criticism? Can this be achieved another way? 

Because there is a way to provide criticism supportively, non-violently and constructively, where appropriate, that does not damage or even destroy the good intentions but rather leaves room for them to be nurtured, encouraged and to grow. And let’s face it, right now, we need as many good intentions as we can get our hands on. And more than this, together we need to develop these good intentions into good deeds, and not let them be quashed under the burden of criticism or fear of failure.

So perhaps those of us with good intentions, for a better and more just world, can show a little more solidarity and a little more support to each other. And in doing so help one another to do better. Because we’re all we’ve got. Let’s pave this road with kindness.

Naomi Ryland is co-founder and Director of tbd* - the careers platform for people who are determined to change the world.