By JEFFREY ZASLOW of the Wall Street Journal
When Kent M. Keith was a Cub Scout in the 1950s, he had a great urge to do good deeds and pile up merit badges. Was it altruism? Ambition? A chance to feel better about himself? Was he really making a difference?
One day, his father set him straight. "Kent," he said, "don't help the old lady cross the street unless she wants to go."
Kent Keith, now 61, is CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, a nonprofit organization based in Westfield, Ind., that advises groups and individuals on practical and ethical ways of helping others.
Most of us want to be effective, he says, "to make the world better. But before you help people, you have to ask them, 'What do you need? What do you want?' "
Every day, we see reminders of the limitations, and even the dangers, of good intentions. In Haiti, U.S. missionaries who said they only wanted to save orphaned children ended up arrested on child-trafficking charges. In Asian countries hit by the 2004 tsunami, residents still shake their heads over the warehouses filled with unusable donations, including winter coats and stiletto shoes. And earthquake-ravaged Chile is sure to receive its share of "useless aid" in the days ahead.
Closer to home, good intentions are often greeted cynically, or with indifference. In Hollywood, celebrities recently gathered to again sing "We Are the World," and much of the world yawned in response.
In Chicago's City Hall, waterless urinals in a men's room were touted for saving 50,000 gallons of water a year per urinal. But without enough water per flush, the copper pipes corroded and urine collected in the restroom wall. The smell of urine spread through City Council chambers. Last month, amid snickering, the well-meaning conservation effort was abandoned, and regular urinals were reinstalled.
The steady procession of such stories would have us believing the old axiom that "no good deed goes unpunished." How can we better calibrate good intentions in our own lives?
The answer, from activists and academics who study the human impulse, is blunt. Throw out any ideas of winning praise for your work—be honest, most of us want to be stroked—and build up some armor to take hits. A growing field of organizations has sprung up to advise people looking to donate, time or money, to help potential donors achieve these steps.
"Throw away your assumptions about what people need," advises Tori Hogan, a 27-year-old activist who has traveled the world studying the effectiveness of aid programs. Beyond Good Intentions, the Cambridge, Mass.-based charity-watchdog organization she founded, posts videos on its Web site that evaluate aid projects.
Ms. Hogan tells of going to a village in Peru where an aid group brought in tourists to help build public toilets. The group ran out of money and time, the tourists ended their volunteering vacations, and the toilets were never completed. The aid group had thought access to restroom facilities was needed to boost living standards, Ms. Hogan says. "But when I asked people in the community what they wanted, they said, 'What we really needed was irrigation, and to have our bridge fixed, so we could take our goods to market.' "
The never-completed toilets were gaping holes that had to be covered. Villagers feared their children would fall in.
Such failed efforts are often repeated across the developing world, and some aid workers resent it when Ms. Hogan points them out. Too bad, she says. As she sees it, it's irresponsible to believe that as long as we mean well, the details will figure themselves out. It's no excuse to say: "Well, at least my heart was in the right place."
It's not always true that any help is better than no help. "We see a lot of people coming to orphanages, attaching to kids, and they're gone in a week," says Ms. Hogan.
In one of the Beyond Good Intentions videos, a woman who runs an orphanage in Argentina explains that when these short-term volunteers say goodbye, the orphans "are left feeling empty." Now, as soon as volunteers arrive, wary orphans often ask, "How long are you here for?" Says Ms. Hogan: "They're tired of having their hearts broken."
Youth and mentoring programs in the U.S. have the same issues. In Swarthmore, Pa., students at Swarthmore College are asked not to serve as volunteer tutors for disadvantaged kids unless they're willing to make a "long term" commitment of at least one semester.
If you're a needy child, "it may be better to have no relationship with these [collegiate] role models than to have a relationship you can't count on," says Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory and social action at the college.
Of course, it's not just people in need who can fall victim to good intentions. Do-gooders face hazards of their own. "You're vulnerable to being exploited. But it's a risk worth taking," says Dr. Schwartz.
Talk to those who have seen firsthand that "no good deed goes unpunished," and they often agree.
In San Antonio, Jon Hansbrough received a parking ticket last year while briefly parked in a commercial loading zone. A church volunteer, he was delivering meals for a homeless shelter. He says the officer who issued the ticket told him he should have parked down the block and somehow carted the 500 pounds of food to the shelter.
At first, Mr. Hansbrough, a 66-year-old disabled veteran, was upset, and called on fellow parishioners "to pray that public officials will develop compassion for the homeless and tolerance for those who feed them."
But on reflection, he chose not to dwell on the fact that he was "punished" while doing good. Instead, he now stays with his sport-utility vehicle in case an officer shows up, while some of the homeless men quickly unload the food. "I'm answering to a higher calling," he says.
Michael Grayson, who survived a more serious example of being "punished" for a good deed, feels the same way. Last December, the 51-year-old carpenter from Jacksonville, Fla., stopped along a roadway to help an 87-year-old woman whose car wouldn't start.
Mr. Grayson slid underneath her car, got it running by jumping the starter, but didn't realize the woman had left the car in drive. The car began to move and both the front and back tires rolled across him, crushing multiple bones. He has no insurance, and his medical bills now stand at $148,000. Medicaid and the woman's auto insurance have covered only a fraction of that amount, and his doctors expect him to be in a wheelchair until June.
Still, Mr. Grayson says he has no regrets about helping that woman, and no hard feelings toward her. The lesson for him isn't that no good deed goes unpunished. Rather, he says, the lesson is to be more careful. "I should have checked that the car was in park, and I should have blocked the tires before getting under the car," he says.
He hopes his predicament won't dissuade anyone from following through on good intentions. "Do all you can for other people," he says. "That's what makes the world go round."