CGI U: Doing good for the sake of meeting an ex-president
From April 5-7, Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) will be held on Wash. U.’s Danforth campus. The goal of CGI U is to engage college students and encourage them, either individually or in groups, to develop a Commitment to Action, a plan to improve society in one of the five focus areas of education, environment and climate change, poverty alleviation, peace and human rights, and public health.
At Wash. U., many students are thrilled by the presence of CGI U, not because of any deep-seated desire to better the world—though that no doubt exists in many of us—but because the arrival of CGI U also signifies the arrival of its founder, former president Bill Clinton. The association of Clinton’s name with the organization no doubt does it a world of good, from attracting greater funding to increasing awareness of it, but his presence has at least one negative side-effect: it attracts students who are more interested in meeting, or even having the opportunity to share the same oxygen as, the former president.
People committing altruistic actions for non-altruistic reasons is hardly a new phenomenon. In the United States, for example, the federal government subsidizes altruistic activity by allowing donors to deduct from their taxes a portion of their financial donations to charitable organizations. When the proposition of decreasing the amount that could be deducted entered the fiscal cliff discussions of 2012, critics claimed, probably correctly, that doing so would reduce the number and size of donations made to charities.
In fact, people acting charitably for personal gain is probably more the rule than the exception. We would be surprised to hear of someone volunteering 30 hours a week to work at a soup kitchen if he did not claim that he felt like it was the right thing to do and that he did not experience positive emotions as a result of donating his time. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find such an active volunteer who complained of the moral anguish his activities put him through. In its recent blood drive at Wash. U., the Red Cross drove this point home with signs declaring, “Donate today. The gratification is instant.” Whether to pay less in taxes, meet important statesmen or simply feel good about ourselves, most of us derive some benefit from acting charitably.
Doing so in the case of CGI U, however, is more problematic. To attend the multi-day conference, it is not enough to simply declare and detail one’s Commitment to Action. Rather, there is an application process in which a Commitment to Action, among other material, is reviewed by an application board. If an applicant is determined to meet the criteria of the application board, he or she will be allowed to attend the conference.
The problem is clear. As only a finite number of spots exist, people who submitted applications by the Jan. 30 deadline for the express purpose of seeing Clinton, with no intention of developing their plans after CGI U’s meeting at Wash. U., are potentially—and wrongfully—taking the spots of applicants who actually want to effect positive change while at the same time doing nothing charitable at all. The application was not particularly difficult, and a sufficiently-dedicated student could have crafted an ambitious, impressive application over the course of a few hours.
If this was indeed your rationale for applying, consider that you damage the prospects of a student who wishes to attend for legitimately charitable reasons. If a glimpse of a man most of us are too young to have distinct recollections of—he left office when most seniors were 9 or 10 years old—is of that great importance, then apply to be a student volunteer, where your services as an usher, photographer, registration staffer or whatever else will be beneficial.