Recently, a new hire at work asked a poignant question: How do we approach social impact organizations with our services while being mindful of the savior complex? I love that question, and quite frankly, more people should be asking themselves that question.
A savior is an individual who equates their action to do good as a sacrifice for the lesser privileged. The savior complex names the phenomenon of folks who act with a self-serving intention to feel good about themselves rather than to do good for others. They expect to be praised, validated, or rewarded by those around them in exchange.
As a B Corp, we uphold some of the industry's highest standards to treat employees well, conduct business with purpose, and balance our books while doing good. These guidelines start with a baseline understanding that business can be a force of good.
To kick off this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Month and encourage other business leaders to meaningfully act for positive impact, I share my take on the savior complex and genuine ways to build awareness of folks who work in the social impact space.
How do we approach social impact organizations with our services while being mindful of the savior complex?
Am I a savior?
You are probably a savior if it hurts your ego when someone rejects your offer to help. You might start getting defensive, and some even force it onto an individual. You're transacting your ability or privilege to help if you expect to receive over-the-top praise or appreciation.
Saviorhood is different from being seen and fairly compensated for your work. The key here is where your intentions are coming from and if the exchange is equitable.
White men are prone to the savior complex.
When people of color enter white-male dominant spaces, we carry all of the identities that make up our intersectionalities, including their perceived stereotypes. We are often “empowered” because the savior recognizes we are historically disempowered. For far too long, gatekeepers have held onto power with a scarcity mindset, and their actions loosely hide behind business objectives and incentives. Those gatekeepers are often already in positions of power or are entitled to it, making them primarily white men.
A white man once sat me down to share that grammatical mistakes in my email have caused reputational damage because my name already reads like an off-shore employee. On another occasion, a separate white man said to my coworker that a particular woman of color could not command a room, despite having a flawless track record of leading meetings for several years. I can recount endless incidents with a similar storyline, but the point is to notice when you are the gatekeeper, who you choose to let in, how you screen folks, and what you hope to get in return.
Doing Good isn’t always loud and shiny.
In schools, we’re taught the names of activists who marked milestones of our civil rights movement, championed women’s rights, or ended wars. Those names are celebrated as holidays and marked on streets, schools, and statues. They validate the importance of these historical figures, but at the same time, the way we commemorate these milestones is only a part of what activism looks like for some people.
As a former immigrant rights organizer, I know how it feels to leave a congressperson's office after being told I should be grateful to be in this country. Anyone who has knocked on doors to get out the vote, volunteered for a political candidate, or fundraised for a cause knows that the reality of activism seldom sees the limelight. Make no mistakes; it’s the unsung heroes and forgotten deeds that make a difference.
Values-driven action is more sustainable than succumbing to a world that incentivizes us to get likes, praises, and validation. If our intention behind our action aligns with our core values, we are more likely to scale our drive and impact even when it is painful, tiresome, and unrewarding. As we actively resist systems of oppression, it will take many of us taking micro-steps so that a few of us can break through and bring about changes on a macro level.
The most impactful work is often underfunded.
As the Head of Growth at Exygy, my job is to increase our revenue. In the social impact space, this means flipping the economics of business upside-down and prioritizing the most amount of impact we can make with organizations who come to us with a slim budget. As a small business, justifying a smaller budget project means calculating opportunity costs, overhead, and other operational costs that usually amortize over longer-term and well-funded projects —and throwing it out the window.
Remember, it’s not about you.
It’s about centering these organizations’ needs and meeting them where they are, even if it's inconvenient and inefficient.
We know ignoring those numbers can be detrimental to our business. Instead, we started thinking of ways underfunded organizations could partner with us. Today, we pair with their marketing team to write blogs, apply for awards, and boost their fundraising efforts. These strategic investments in underinvested organizations align with our values and mission and continue to make a positive difference to our bottom line.
It’s never too late to quit being a savior.
Just as we have to be actively anti-racist, those who work in the social impact space must consciously recognize that working in a business for good doesn’t exempt folks from being a savior. Notice when your proximity to whiteness changes the air in the room and how your self-awareness can become helpful in recognizing power dynamics, self-affirming bias, racism, sexism, and all the -isms that can promote inequities, even if subtly.
The savior complex isn’t unique to white people. Anyone in a powerful position who feels like they are saving people by their presence or action can be identified as a savior. While working in my 20s, I’ve had several colleagues of color who casually proposed that their unearned citizenship by being born in the United States could save me from deportation. Not only is it illegal (and unprofessional), but it’s also an utterly unappealing incentive for a date.
Here's the TLDR;
You can feel good about doing good when your actions align with your core values. Don’t get me wrong: The fight toward social justice needs white people to show up, including the social impact space. We also need allies to do self-work and constantly reflect on their intentions because marginalized communities don’t fight for justice because it feels good – we do it because its lack of is the difference between life or death. So, if you identify as an ally and receive feedback, especially from their colleagues of color, it can either be a turning point for self-reflection or it can expose fragility and saviorhood.
While discussing my fear of offending people, my therapist wisely replied, “if they think this article is about them, it probably is. Also, this month is about you and your community, not them.”
About the Author
Ivy Teng Lei (she/her/hers) is the Head of Growth at Exygy, a certified B Corp and a design and technology agency that works with social impact organizations to improve lives. She is the Founder and President of shopcauses.org, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that connects causes serving the immigrant and refugee community to fund their registries with 100% tax-deductible donations. After arriving in the United States as an undocumented immigrant, she advocates for immigrant justice and education equity while balancing her full-time job at the Interpublic Groups of Companies (IPG), Gap Inc, and leading tech startups as one of their first hires. As an op-ed contributor to The Guardian, her work has been featured on NBC, Fox, ABC, NY Times, NPR, and BBC UK, and she is a frequent speaker at events such as the Women's March in Washington, D.C., and local town halls alongside elected officials, community organizers, and advocates.
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Ivy Teng Lei
Head of Growth
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