Monday, February 25, 2008

my armor

i realized today that i haven't written a post on just ponderings in general in quite some time. it also just so happens that a dude said something today at work that got me to thinking. so...

as brief background information, i work at a non-profit. so we were in a meeting today with this guy who was kind enough to give us some advice on a project we're working on, and he was telling a story about a justice reform he was on a committee for back in the day. he wrote a dissenting opinion to their final recommendations. "of course," he said, "nothing came of the recommendations. or my dissent." he paused for a moment, and then laughed a bit and said, "moral victory is a part of my armor."

now maybe i'm giving him a lot of credit for something that probably just came out of his mouth without a whole lot of thought first, but i thought this was really deep, and also sort of a very interesting and perhaps too-close-to-home insight into the psyche of the typical non-profit/NGO employee. out of that sentence what *I* got was "i've been working in this field all my life and it's even more fucked up now than it was when i set out to try and fix it, but facing that reality is a bit too much for me to try and wrap my head around, so i just try to take a symbolic moral stand. that way, if nothing else, i can say its not my fault."

i don't know, i don't really feel like going into a whole huge "unpacking" of this concept, but i do feel like this is one of the reasons i don't want to stay in non-profit work forever. It just feels a bit like running up against a brick wall over and over again until finally you stop even trying to get past the wall, you just try not to look like an idiot when you hit it.

then again, sometimes if you hit a wall hard enough, you bust through. these are the conundrums we face in life. feel free to ponder and discuss.


brotherkomrade said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
brotherkomrade said...

The running up against the brick wall is due to the fault of the executive layer of a Nonprofit; a lot of them are corporate rejects and never-will-bees who lack the spinal fortitude for change and risk. In short, they are careerists and functionaries working only long enough to prove they really do have management skills so they can hopefully rejoin the corporate fold. I can tell stories and I only worked for one for a year.

icarus said...

i think that some of this really depends what you mean by a "nonprofit." for instance, i think some nonprofits (like those that do impact litigation, for example) can make a huge difference, while i know that others often suffer, but for different reasons.

i think that there are structural issues - a lack of funding, a lack of visibility, an inability to take a strong position on an issues, and then there are internal issues - people who don't know how to manage others, ineffective or wasteful use of time and money, a lack of incentive for better work and a failure to be heard from anyone outside the nonprofit world (and believe me, i've seen my share of that!).

there are a ton of different factors and i've been thinking about them a lot this year. i disagree with brotherkomrade that there is one simple explanation for the difficulties people encounter at nonprofits - i think it really does depend on where you work and who you work for.

i know that i would like to do public-interest work in the future, but i also want to make sure that i feel the work i do is making meaningful, concrete, *real* structural change, and not just something i do for show.

Giselle Brianceschi said...

Just for the sake of comparison, I think most FOR-profit businesses could be characterized by the following: people who don't know how to manage others, ineffective or wasteful use of time and money, a lack of incentive for better work and a failure to be heard from anyone outside the industry. Even our stupid pop culture satirizes the utter waste of resources that is the middle management found in basically every corporation in the US. So I guess, to be fair - nonprofits are inefficient, but wouldn't you rather be in an inefficient enterprise that's actually trying to accomplish something WORTHWHILE? (rather than like, produce widgets or make rich people richer or whatever?)

Anyway, it's all about on what level you expect change to be created. Sometimes impact litigation creates big sweeping changes. Sometimes the change you create is just in one person's life - like a nonprofit that sends advocates with domestic violence survivors to help them navigate complex court procedures. Maybe you're not fixing Life, The Universe, and Everything, but you've made a concrete difference.

Then there are the nonprofits that aren't really creating visible change at all. From my limited experience i'd submit it's usually for one of two reasons:
1. the times are just against you. sometimes that's gonna happen, even to the best nonprofits, and it's a bitch. but like are we all going to give up just because we don't get instantaneous results? sometimes the eras where there is no VISIBLE progress are the eras where the most important groundwork is being laid for a big leap forward later. look for instance at the Goldwater era for the conservative movement...they weren't winning any political battles back then but they built a movement that wreaked devastating havoc forty years on.
2. some nonprofits just aren't flexible enough. some of them are banging their heads into the wall because they're still trying to do something that just isn't going to work anymore - see NARAL, et al. and that's often because they've become part of the establishment and doing things any other way would mean shaking things up...and what if that meant they didn't get invited to as many cocktail parties?? well la di da, wouldn't that be a shame.

So i guess in sum...i think a satisfying career is possible in nonprofits. But of course, for full disclosure, I have an incentive to say that because that's the career i'm heading into. ;)