Lately, the non-profit sector has been depressing me, which is a challenge because it’s the sector I have committed the last 15 years of my life to serve. And I feel like a traitor articulating this depression out loud. Non-profit folks are supposed to be eternally hopeful, selfless, and optimistic change agents or martyrs who unconditionally believe in world peace and a just society, right? And here I am not only doubting, but expressing that doubt out loud.
But it’s impossible and unrealistic to be eternally optimistic in the face of real challenges, and it’s counter to our mission to create positive change to remain silent about obstacles. It’s human to question and doubt, and contemplate both light and darkness. Lately, the darkness of social change work has felt overwhelming to me. My hope is that by naming some of what I’ve observed, we can create some new winds of change from the inside out:
- There was some recent coverage about how donors give from the heart. This sounds like a great thing, but really it means that donors give to people they like, not programs that work. Or even programs that use their funds effectively. It’s like people buy the commercial, not the product.
- Funders chase what’s new. New leaders. New ideas. New approaches. But not brand new, because there are few funders who want to be the first in. From SMS technologies that will save the developing world to educational iPad apps for kids, there are always a million seemingly new ideas though hundreds of people invent them at the same time.
- Foundations spend enormous time and resources investing in strategic planning and logic models, and to what end? Are we getting more effective at solving social problems or more effective at creating a robust non-profit industrial complex?
- The media, oh the media, has an attention span of about 36 hours, which is barely enough time to consider the causes of a flat tire, let alone social issues like sexual violence, poverty, or homelessness.
- As humans, we desire quick fixes to complex problems. We give up if it’s too hard. Collaboration, while necessary, is sticky and complicated, and often ugly. So people collaborate with their friends, creating a constellation of non-profit social cliques that can rival Mean Girls.
- Meanwhile, the egos in the non-profit sector are as big, and perhaps more complex, as those in the private sector. At least in the private sector, egos are relatively undisguised. In the non-profit sector, ego takes the form of the desire to be loved and revered, pursuit of big stages and platforms instead of progress, and quest for access to power and money, not necessarily using it towards the highest good.
- Oh yes, and outcomes. We don’t really measure those at the community level. We measure them at the organizational level. Which means that we all believe that our intervention is THE BEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD, even if it’s just a small part of a much more complex puzzle. In the end, we probably don’t have control over the outcomes we care about the most – we can’t control human behavior, good and evil, inequality. Which is likely why we don’t measure them. I mean who wants to feel hopeless on a daily basis?
So why, you may ask, do I continue to stick with this career path? Why not just open a yoga studio on a quiet beach? Or start a hedge fund?
First, I respect the fact that you can’t change the game if you don’t know the game. And it’s a lot easier to change the game as an insider than as an outsider. So I learn the game while trying to change it at the same time, and I know many of my colleagues do as well. That being said, I’ve been thinking more about ways to influence issues outside of organizations and outside of the idea of “charity’ all together.
Second, I recognize that working towards social change, no matter how frustrating, provides me with a greater sense of purpose than anything else. This is not because I believe it is a higher level of work – for all the reasons described above, it’s not. And there are multiple ways to be mission-oriented in work and in life. The people who create gadgets and spreadsheets and market products so people buy them and get the trains to run on time are ALSO social change agents. Because without them, people working directly towards social change would be stuck in their houses without means to communicate with each other and without paychecks to send their kids to college. I just think that having my work closely aligned with mission is the best way for me to live.
Third, I believe that any work pathway is an opportunity to know myself and impact others. I also take refuge in the belief that one can change issues and people at the same time. Maybe I can change some of these cultural dynamics that frustrate me, change a donor’s perspective on how they make decisions about giving, or convince a foundation to do more in an area that has traditionally been overlooked. Maybe I can convince a single person to tell the truth about their life or their organization, which I believe will lead to the kind of transformational culture change we really need.
Finally, in my heart of hearts, I know that the things that frustrate me about the non-profit sector are basically a reflection of our limitations as humans. We can’t escape egos, conflict, short attention spans, and general self-absorption – it’s just part of the hand we are dealt. And they would exist anywhere and everywhere. A yoga studio on the beach. A hedge fund in New York. Or a monastery in Tibet.
Social change work – like any work – is a spiritual path if you make it one. It’s an opportunity to know myself, face good and evil, and accept our human condition and limitations. If we all did a little more following of a spiritual path – in whatever sector we choose to work – the world could indeed become more just and peaceful.