Tulane VISTA Blog

Fighting Poverty with Passion

Reflections on a Service Year—Amy Biedermann

April always seems like one of the busiest months in New Orleans, at least for me.  It’s when crawfish boil season starts up in earnest and when some of city’s best festivals take place, namely Jazz Fest and French Quarter Fest,  not to mention the lesser known but  just as awesome Ponchatoula Strawberry Fest and Freret Street Festival.  Then there’s Easter, and of course, my birthday!

Due to this crazy month, I’ve decided to forego a traditional post and instead just list a few things I’ve learned from my service year so far.

  • My work projects have been more DIY than I had anticipated.  I know this is true for other VISTAS as well, though possibly not all.  If I wanted to do something, I had to create the space to implement it myself (like the research workshop I helped plan).  By the same token, if I didn’t take the initiative to pursue a project, it likely didn’t get done. There often weren’t any consequences; it simply just didn’t happen.  Sometimes this was fine and other times…maybe less so.

    From the Design Thinking workshop I helped plan earlier this year.

    From the Design Thinking workshop I helped plan earlier this year.

  • You might learn more from a challenging service year than one that’s smooth and uneventful.
  • Small, struggling nonprofits can be stressful places to work.  Even if it seems like there’s always a fire that needs to be put out, it’s vital to take the time to appreciate your staff and volunteers.

  • On that token, to be effective in managing volunteers, you need to understand everyone’s motivation.  Are they there because they believe in The Cause with every fiber of their being? Are there personal or professional motivations? It’s best not to make assumptions.

  • Speaking of the challenges of working in a very small organization: two heads are better than one, and quite often, the more heads, the better.  With only a few decision makers, consensus is arrived at more easily, but this might not be such a good thing.  Not every idea you have will be a gem and you need to have people around you that will tell you so.

    The dangers of Groupthink

    The dangers of Groupthink

  • If you allow your programming to follow the money, you not only risk mission creep but also risk trapping your organization in a box that will be difficult to evolve out of once the money changes directions.  Changing the direction of your programming to fit the funding that’s currently available  is short-sighted.

  • That’s why I’m a fan of social entrepreneurship.  This strategy for addressing social problems largely stems from the inefficiency of grant-funding and general nonprofit fundraising.  Social entrepreneurship seeks to do social good by capitalizing on market demand.  “Non-profit” doesn’t automatically equal “altruistic and effective” and “for-profit” doesn’t always mean “corporate greed.”  Socially conscious for-profits have the potential to be self-sustaining AND do good.


Amy Biedermann

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This entry was posted on April 15, 2014 by in VISTA Field Reports and tagged , .

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