on hating your philanthropic job (or how not to)

November 14, 2010

A friend in the military told me he hates his job.

"They don't tell you what it's really like," he said. "You don't feel the things the recruiters tell you that you will."

I thought of him in Uganda, when I realized I was spending half of my summer wishing I was home with my mother.

Nobody tells you that things will go that way.

But they do.

I've found it to be true of many (if not most) people that spend time doing human rights work by themselves. It's certainly not a case of the feel goods that keep most people going. I think it's the inability to look away. Not only to what one has  seen physically, but to the reality that needs are being met, and that matters - immensely.

Even so, I find myself struggling with discouragement. The longer non profit work becomes a job, the deeper the need to see results, create plans, deal with bank accounts and receipts and learn how to forget fundraising ideas that fall on their face. It's the business of trying to open a person's eyes that's hard.

I'm a newbie, but I've learned a few things, in the past year.

1. Be flexible. Be willing to give up on an idea as it begins to fail, rather than seeing it out just for the sake of the thing. If you're going to lose resources, wave the white flag. Case in point - a Chik-Fil-A fundraiser I had planned for tomorrow. I was about to run around frantically today and try and get it together, before my roommate and I sad down and calculated about how irrational it was to expect that we were actually going to make money.

2. Find a new network. Your network of friends is not your philanthropic network. I've begun to see that, while I can count on a certain amount of my friends to help, it's the people that seek me out for the purpose of partnering with me that tend to be most helpful. One, because they haven't been guilted into it and, two, because I'm not doing the work of motivating them, on top of all the other work I'm already trying to get done.

3.  Take some time to lay the groundwork. Most things take a long time to put together. This is just the reality of it. It's not a reason for discouragement, heart palpitations or lost sleep. I was encouraged, recently, to read a business manager that took an entire year to reformat the way her business did things. After that? Her venture became one of the most successful in her field. But she had to take the time to lay the groundwork.

4. Compartmentalize. Your failed fundraiser, relatively small facebook group or misunderstood passion have nothing to do with your social/romantic/personal life. Philanthropic or no, this is business. Think (and try to feel) that it is such.

5. Ask questions. Ask for help, ask for advice, ask for contacts, ask for imput. I've found designers, volunteers, media experts and (just recently) a business partner through (mostly) innocent queries.

6. Commit to the long haul. This one's hard for me. I like results, and I like them now. My ex boyfriend and I fought long and hard over the simple words, "Let's do this later." I just hate, hate, hate it. But, ex boyfriend and philanthropic endeavors alike have taught me that sometimes fighting for results right now only ends up in discouragement. So, understand that the lapse of time between your labor, and it's delicious fruit, might feel far too long.

7. Say no. I have a friend that jokes, "You know, if I really wanted to get your attention, all I have to do is say the word, 'hungry child,' and I'll have you at my disposal." He and I had a heated conversation over chicken marsala, a few weeks back. He brought up my stress level, and my simultaneous insistence on saying yes to everything. He said, "you know, your services are worth something. volunteer to a certain point, but know where that point is." My mother puts it differently. She says, "you take on too many things at once, and you won't do any of them well."

It annoys me every time she says that, because I pride myself on doing it all - and doing it well. But she was right.

8. Be willing to fork out a little cash. I know that we're all looking for volunteers, here, but the reality is that sometimes paying a web designer could get you twenty times the attention (and donations) you would get from a volunteer without the same skill level.

9. Know your place. Sometimes I'm still finding mine. This summer, I told my dad that maybe I was the girl who wanted to wear stilettos and discuss funding over a double tall latte breve (nonfat my ass). "I'm not the girl to live in an African village," I told him. "I want to go, sure. But I have a huge need in me to come home and be on the other end of things." He told me that was ok. I needed someone to tell me that.

10. Stop being the philanthropic poster girl. Really, it doesn't have to be your job. I've spent far too many parties riveting the cute pre-med student who eyed me from across the room with stories of AIDS and African huts. But the truth of it is that we all need a break, sometimes. And maybe, this weekend is your turn.

photo via this tumblr.