Fighting Poverty with Passion
As our time draws to a close, I and a few of the other VISTAs in my cohort will be leaving AmeriCorps. While some of us are going back to school or getting jobs elsewhere, a few people are taking positions with other non-profits in New Orleans. After a year of service, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on working in the non-profit community.
Here are a few strategies for dealing with the stress associated with these positions.
1. Be incredibly idealistic. Assume that you are providing an objectively beneficial service. That’s what your supervisor told you, anyway, and she’s got TONS of research to back it up. Never worry about whether or not anything you do is effective, reaching the right people, sustainable, or attainable. Your job is to pass out flyers and get people to recycle their bottle caps, and you’ll be damned if you don’t do your job–your part to save the world.
You might want to use this strategy if you are in love with the overall goal of a non-profit and will do anything necessary to help further it. This strategy is not recommended for anyone who wants to reach a high position in an organization or someone who wants to start and run a nonprofit for any length of time.
Quote you might hear from someone using this strategy: Have you heard our mission statement? The mission is to cure poverty! How awesome is that?
2. Don’t care about others, at least, not too much. Yes, of course, you would give an apple to a starving child, but not if you were also starving yourself. You won’t do any good sacrificing your wellbeing for someone else’s. Understand that there is corruption built into the system, and that this can be used to your advantage. Sometimes, that’s just how things go. At the end of the day, this is just a job that happens to produce a better world. Probably. It might just provide you with a living and decent benefits. That counts, right? You accept that maybe this isn’t a perfect system, but you can make it three times more efficient! Will that provide any measurable difference to your constituents? Possibly not, but the boss will love you! You can write grants like a pro. What are the grants for? Doesn’t matter! You got 4,000 dollars! You’ll be high on that accomplished feeling all week. You can throw enough buzzwords into conversation to completely hide the fact that the program you’re describing isn’t really supporting your mission, and you’re okay with that, because the organization needs to have a record of programming in order to receive support for other programs.
You might want to use this strategy if you are familiar with, and a fan of, politics and political moves, or if you need something to do for a while that will look good on a resume. This strategy is great for anyone interested in running non-profits. It is not so good for someone who wants to make a big impact on the world in a short-term job.
Quote you might hear from someone using this strategy: Sketchy spending practices? Yeah, that’s really common in non-profits. I wouldn’t worry about it.
Of course, some successful non-profit workers will utilize both strategies, at least superficially. They have the ability to inspire others to pass out flyers on bottle-cap recycling, while simultaneously understanding that this campaign may not, in fact, do anything to “cure poverty”. They will use the language of idealism and personal duty to describe a field that sometimes functions more like a sketchy lobbying campaign than a humanitarian effort.
There is, luckily, a third option:
3. Work at a really great non-profit. You know–not assume, not hope, know–that you are doing something beneficial. If you have an established program to increase literacy, you have data showing that students in that program read better than they do without the program. If you have a new or pilot program, you are satisfied that you are collecting and utilizing program evaluations to determine whether the program is successful and what needs to be changed. There are checks and balances throughout the organization, making sure plans are in keeping with the mission, the board members are active and up to date on operations, and that all of these things are regularly checked and adjusted. There are enough regular and qualified staff to meet the needs of the organization (or you’re in the process of hiring more). Employees don’t quit every few weeks or months. Staff and board members are invested in the mission, and receptive to utilizing good operational practices to complete it.
Use this strategy whenever possible! It will be the best possible choice. This is the only way to guarantee a positive overall job experience. Strong, sustainable non-profits work in this manner, and you want to work in a place that will be around for a while! If you come home every day questioning whether your work is helping anyone, you’re working in the wrong place. To use this strategy, find a new non-profit!
A quote you might hear from someone using this strategy: We’re having a debriefing after camp to go over what we can do better next year; we don’t want to make the same mistakes again!
Happy July Everyone!
VISTA with Kedila Family Learning Services