We know the scene well: just as the villain is about to unleash their final decimating blow the superhero flies in, saving the day. It makes for great movies.

In real life, however, the application can be devastating.

Even worse in the humanitarian sector.

Humanitarian aid has become the modern-day hero trend. Like a cape, having ‘humanitarian’ tied to one’s CV is the perfect statement accessory. Add to that a list of meals donated, wells dug, shoes given, and the oohs and ahhs get even louder. As if one is able to leap over poverty barriers with a single bound.

I once had these ideals. Years ago, I set out as a volunteer, moving to Guatemala to work for the welfare of the people in rural communities.

I had visions of donning my ‘cape’ and swooping in to save the day. The villain: poverty and malnourishment. The victims: helpless villagers. My hero self would swoop in and save the day.

The first day of training rocked my hero heart to the core. The message: If you’re in the spotlight, you’re in the wrong place.

I then learned a key concept that has governed my life since.

Shadow Leadership.

In any situation, we are not there to take over. We are there to empower. From the shadows. So much so, that when we leave, no one should feel our absence, but they will have been changed by our presence.

Over the many years since my own paradigm shift, I have seen the gamut of humanitarian organizations. I have gleaned some fundamental principles for any effective humanitarian support. When you sign up for volunteerism, or look for a charity to support, I urge you to look beyond the shiny stories. Go digging around and ask six fundamental questions.

1. Does the organization have an exit strategy? No, I’m not referring to ‘get in, dump gifts, get out’ type of strategy. Is the organization trying to work themselves out of necessity in any given community? Are they working to lift the people in the community to stand on their own? The ultimate goal is for the organization to work itself out of a job. To be able to slip away, with the community hardly noticing they’ve gone.

2. Does the organization go beyond the fishing analogy? You’ve most likely heard the fishing phrase: Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and feed him for a lifetime. True effectiveness takes it one step further: Teach a man to teach others to fish, and feed generations. A ‘train the trainer’ model is key to continuation without dependence.

3. Does the organization search for the cause of the cause? Some solutions seem simple. “the orphanage needs a new building.” It takes time to go deeper. Why are there so many orphanages? Often, orphanages are filled with children from a living family who can’t afford to feed, clothe, or educate them. Look to the cause of the cause – why are families sending kids away? What do the families need to be able to keep their kids? It requires building true relationships and talking with, not to each person. 

4. Does the organization work with a family systems approach? People are not one dimensional. Any one intervention will likely have ripple effects that spill into other areas of their lives and have unintended consequences. Does introducing a garden project require more time away from childrearing, making it harder for mothers to be successful?  Does digging a community well introduce arguments over who fixes it when it inevitably breaks? A family systems approach is slow and hard. The dividends of doing so, however, pay off exponentially.

5. Is the organization project based or people based? “Come and build a school.” Or “Let’s go dig a well.” Is the focus of the organization more on helping the expeditioners ‘feel good’ or to garner relationships with people in the community?

6. Is the organization trying to solve chronic problems with acute means? Disasters and disease happen. Acute needs abound, and need immediate assistance. When the initial push is over and the life-threatening moments have passed, if an organization does not know how to look deep to help the person or community find long term solutions, the hero/victim role will become entrenched.

If you find yourself wondering if you have strayed into hero territory you can ask yourself: “Who should be doing what I am doing?” If you are doing a job that someone else should be learning or reaping the long-term benefits from doing, you have unwittingly squished them in a victim role while placing yourself on the hero platform. It’s time to step down ourselves, and ask more of the organizations we support. More importantly, it’s time to help others step into their potential, not into our dependency.

Jen Brewer is a mother of 7, author, and global nutrition consultant. After years of searching, she has found a humanitarian organization getting it right, and seeing fantastic results. She is excited to join the ranks of Care For Life and help create lasting change.