To be a nonprofit fundraising professional who has worked at multiple organizations is to become intimately aware of the problems of the world. You absorb them into your being. They change you. It’s impossible to live on as you did before.
In my time at a bicycle advocacy organization, I learned first-hand the challenges of being an urban bicycle commuter with no bike lanes or safe bike routes, the understanding that mountain bikers have about the outdoors and the preservation of their play spaces, the road biker’s need for wide shoulders and sympathetic drivers as well as the anxiety parents feel about letting their kids ride to school, as they likely did a generation before. I live with a spandex clad, bicycling obsessed electorate who ride every weekend (or every day) with glee or with medals in mind. There are still safety risks or costs that won’t get those in need of the health benefits on a bike. Here in this seemingly innocent issue, I found myself smack in the middle of transportation, health, conservation, education.
Whenever I see a bike lane that suddenly ends in a city, I hear my director saying — so where does the biker go now?
Next, my career found me at a Butterfly Pavilion; a combination bug zoo, butterfly consortium, educational space. Here I plunged fully into the idea of this quote by Bradley Miller: “Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.” We provided an experience of awe as a butterfly alighted upon your shoulder while hopefully helping the same child or adult to not fear spiders and inherently to understand the larger world through the perspective of the smallest creatures. If you judge a civilization based on how they treat its weakest citizens, I say we judge the human race in charge of the earth by how it treats its smallest creatures. The truth I found was how Insecta affects all other species and natural environments. Now when someone screams out seeing a spider or complains of cockroaches, I think of disappearing rain forests and species extinction. It’s about more than a fun place to go with your family on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The task at hand is to grab attention and hopefully the burden of wonderment that will make it possible to end (more likely defer) climate change.
And for the adults to muse about why the blue beetles are always doing it. Do they know the end is near and are looking for one last screw or just furiously creating offspring. We will never know.
Seven years at Habitat for Humanity taught me to understand poverty and the reality when someone cannot afford a decent and safe place to call home. I saw the inequity in the ignorance of the poor about how owning a home can be a path out of poverty. I witnessed the way owning a home dramatically changed a family from one generation to the next. I heard the stress in the voices of families weary of wages that don’t get them thru the week. I knew the stress of the kids who had to move every year — how their schooling suffered from not having an affordable, safe or appropriate place to live. A home is not just where you sleep but where you do your homework and if there are 13 people living in a 3 bedroom house, there is just not a private place to do this. These kids cannot get ahead and it’s not because they aren’t smart.
I heard crazy and astounding stories of immigrants from the lucky few who made it to Colorado and the US. Those families stick with me as the world’s refugee crisis comes to our door. Imagine your family leaving behind a home they built which was bombed, running into the woods to escape the soldiers with guns, the 10x10 tarps that acted as roofs over dirt for years and years in refugee camps. And surprisingly it’s not because the stories were depressing — they stay with me because of the smiles, the relief so evident on their faces to be somewhere with real walls and running water. And yet, even in my civilized and modern city, there were so many people living in the cold, in toxic places, in unsafe homes with broken locks, in places so expensive it took 5 working adults to pay the rent and not much else. A mom tells me she keeps a knife under her pillow. A grandma cries because her kids get asthma from the asbestos in her apartment. A child says he is getting a job to help his mom pay the bills.
And yet again, I find that it’s not about the house. It’s about the larger issues at stake — health, finances, education, generational poverty. I can’t forget the faces or what I learned from them.
Most recently in my three years raising money for scholarships for Native Americans, I’ve had a complete life altering education in the real and accurate history of the United States of America. Whatever we have here, whatever wealth has been accumulated here, whatever opportunity is here, whatever people say we are, the statements are made without the true reflection of the hundreds of years of genocide, our Holocaust, that happened here.
So I work to give the most under-served population in the country a chance for education, an option to hope, the ability to self-determine their future.
And yet, I am continually confronted with jokes, sports paraphernalia, racism, ignorance and a clear dismissal of the truth from the media, from the mainstream and even sometimes from donors or friends.
This quote by Ta-Nehisi Coates from his book “Between the World and Me,” while more specifically accounting the struggle of Black Americans, still sums up the feelings I have about working on behalf of any oppressed people in America:
The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged out right. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.
At almost 15 years of this work, I am weary. It’s the perfect word for how I feel. I cannot unlearn what I’ve learned. I will continue. I will keep going and hope that my work helps someone. But I wish I could calculate the difference I have made. To know with certainty what I have gained and what I have given. To some task at work recently, someone said, “What difference does it make?” As I get older, I wonder if it does. I want it all to make a difference. Otherwise, what is the point? I want the actions of my days to matter.
Trouble is I need proof that things are better. Or that my actions matter. Not just someone saying good job. The jobs, the work, the space in my brain and soul that this work has taken up — I need it to add up to something. Or what is my life for? I don’t just do things because I am supposed to. I do them because they are the right things, which lead to more right things. That’s what it means to create worth. (Maybe I do this to prove my own worth but that’s another blog post entirely.) I see the big picture. I’m not content to a small satisfaction.
I also have trouble not weighing the good with the bad. For all the houses we built, there were hundreds who didn’t get them. For all the scholarships we gave, there are thousands who don’t get them. What happens to them? It keeps me up at night. The wondering if I have done enough. The knowledge I have gained in this work which makes it hard to make choices and understand clearly the issues around education, transportation, housing, poverty, racism, politics, etc.
These are heady topics. I am one heck of a dinner party guest. Some days, a fascinating beast of knowledge on many issues, but at other times, an incredibly depressing bore.
And all of these stories, all the facts and knowledge I have accumulated, the workload — all this also happens in the “nonprofit environment.” Many of you might not know what that means. And it’s not just one thing. But trust me — it makes this work the most difficult work in the country. Or at least I believe it is.
What is this environment, you might wonder? It’s the environment where we are seen as less than because we sell the opportunity to change the world instead of selling a car or soda or life insurance. It’s where if we spend money to make money, we are seeing as immoral. It’s having to account for every dime without hiring a company or accountant to account for it. It’s where we must find a volunteer and then be questioned about whether we have done it appropriately.
It’s the environment where we are rewarded not by the total funding allocated to make the world better. Instead, we are rewarded, more like judged on our worth, based on how much we don’t spend to achieve our goals. How much we don’t spend to earn money. Websites and donor advice is provided in the form of one stat — cost to raise a dollar. If it’s over 5%, you’re the devil. And not worthy of receiving more donations. Donors really believe this.
And in the process of not spending money, we lose employees. Amazing people. Smart people who come to realize they can’t afford to buy a house on this salary. Or they cannot afford to travel and see this amazing world they are saving. Or who cannot pay for college for their kids so they can become educated and fix the education system that’s so messed up. Good people who decide that the hours and the heartache are not sustainable. Not healthy. Not good for their families. They leave the industry in droves. And many feel like their souls are left behind. Some are able to find something in between. Consulting. Something creative. Something righteous. But our work falters without them. Alternatively, without competitive pay, no one expects those who stay to be smart, hardworking or talented. They figure if we are still here it’s because we can’t make in the “real” world. Where smart people sell annuities, do marketing, contribute to fracking, build bombs, deal…er produce drugs.
The nonprofit community is forever crippled to not achieve our goals or bring our ideas or programs to a scale that could actually create change and help people. And then we are blamed for the world not being better.
I carry the weight of these issues, these problems we want to fix… all the while negotiating with donors for money they sometimes earned creating the problems I am trying to fix. The health issues, wealth inequities, environmental crisis’s, education problems… The list goes on.
And they are in control. They decide. I ask and provide opportunities but it’s ultimately up to them.
Many supporters understand the challenges. They say “God bless you for the work you do.” They help us meet our ambitious goals. They sit with us, not on the sidelines but in the trenches. This is not for them. They keep me going.
This is for those who really don’t get it. Those who ask if I get a bonus for hitting my goal. Who introduce me as a volunteer. Who believe nonprofit CEOs shouldn’t be paid. Who won’t support administrative fees or overhead (I am overhead.) Who assume the government or a private company provides our funding.
They undervalue all that we do. You must understand. We are actually doing what we say we are doing. We are housing the homeless, educating youth, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, comforting the grieving, counseling the mentally ill, supporting the elderly. The list is as endless as the pains and needs of all people on the earth. And people act like it’s a hobby. They don’t take it seriously. They are unwilling to sit with how hard it is. They should be thanking us. Not the other way around.