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Why Do Americans Shun The Label `Do-Gooder'?
by William Coplin

In writing the book How You Can Help: An Easy Guide to Doing Good Deeds in Your Everyday Life, I found myself in constant battle over the term ``do good,'' and especially the noun ``do-gooder.''

A smart-aleck former student of mine asked if I was writing a book of fiction.

A New York Upper-Eastsider, who spends much of her time and money trying to help the unfortunate, said she liked the idea of the book, but not my proposed title: ``A Guide for the Genuine Do-Gooder.''

``No one wants to be called a do-gooder,'' she said.

Perhaps she had looked up the term in Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, which defines a do-gooder as ``an earnest usually impractical and often naive and ineffectual humanitarian or reformer.''

My publisher refused to allow the term in the main title but grudgingly accepted do-gooder in the subtitle; that is, until a book buyer from a major chain said ``get it off the cover completely, or I will bury it in sociology if I do decide to buy it.''

Why America's distaste for the label ``do-gooder''?

Is it because we are humble and do not want to appear as braggarts? Is it because we will be viewed as a source of easy gifts and do not want to be overwhelmed by requests? Is it because we are believers in individual responsibility and do not want to abrogate the right of each and every one of us to make or break ourselves? Is it because we are materialistic free-market advocates and don't want to mess with a system that has brought us cell phones? Could it be that we feel guilty about our self-indulgence and want to discredit the idea of doing good to ease our conscience? Is it because we reject mushiness and want to appear tough and pragmatic?

The answer to all of these questions is Yes.

Americans don't want to be called do-gooders for many reasons. Nevertheless, our ambivalent attitude toward money, even as we seem to be worshiping it more than ever, is the most powerful source of the hostility. Making money as an end in itself forces us to be suspicious of those who seem to be motivated by other drives.

At the same time, most Americans harbor deep-seated guilt about their obsession with the material even though it is clearly Madison Avenue that is to blame.

The net effect is to create a predisposition to assign too small a space in our daily lives for helping to improve society.

Giving, for instance, has not kept up with increased income and wealth in this very strong economy: According to a 1999 report by the Independent Sector, donations per U.S. household were less in 1998 than they were in 1995. And while the numbers of volunteers nationwide have increased and the total hours are at an all-time high, the average number of hours each volunteer contributes per week has gone down from four hours to 3.5 hours, a decrease of 12.5 percent.

Volunteer fire and ambulance departments are in big trouble all over the country. It is very difficult to get citizens to run for local political office or even show up at a town-hall meeting unless their immediate interests are threatened. And perhaps most important of all, the best and the brightest do not seek careers in government, teaching and the not-for-profit sector.

We need to rescue the term do-gooder from the ridicule it receives in our culture. The idea of spending some time and money on making the world better does not threaten our individualism, pragmatism or even our materialism.

Do-gooders do not have to be pure in motive and totally dedicated, like Mother Teresa, to making the world better. They can mix business and pleasure with doing good. Allowing space for at least 5 percent of their time and money in order to work for the dream embodied in the Declaration of Independence would leave plenty of time for their individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Having respect for and giving support to those who devote most of their energies to that dream would not be un-American. It would produce better teachers, better police, better bankers and, dare we be so naive as to say it, better politicians and lawyers.

We will be less timid in our volunteering and our donations as we see others willing to take action and become known as do-gooders. We will take seriously those politicians who show in demonstrable ways their concern for the welfare of all of society. We will vote differently and spend our money differently as we find out that doing good can be something to be proud of, not something to hide from our peers for fear of looking like chumps.

Let there be such a groundswell of people doing good for one another that our dictionaries will be forced to redefine do-gooder from the pejorative to what such a person really is: an individual who donates effort and resources to make at least one little piece of the world better.


William D. Coplin is professor of public affairs in Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

c. 2000, Knight Ridder/Tribune

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