What’s the Profit in Nonprofit?
I didn’t intend to spend the bulk of my career in the nonprofit world. It might have been inevitable given that I attended Christian schools from Kindergarten through college and the options available to women when I was choosing a major were teacher, clerical, or nurse. I couldn’t stand the sight of blood and I aspired to be more than a secretary. My mother, who had taught in a one-room school, encouraged me to follow in her footsteps (though the one- room schoolhouses had gone the way of the horse and buggy by the time I was in college.) Despite my love for words and apparent writing strengths, I rejected the obvious – English teacher. Too obvious? Not sure why. I opted for a degree in elementary education with psychology-sociology as an area of interest/emphasis – thinking that if teaching didn’t work out something in the area of social work would be of interest. I think these were early signs of an altruism that would eventually find its full flower in various roles in nonprofits.
I managed to make it through 4-5 years of teaching, even renewing my teaching certificate, before other interests and opportunities took me out of the classroom. The opportunity to write for publication – albeit covering local government for a small-town newspaper – presented itself as I worked as a typesetter to pay off debt incurred in a failed business attempt. I will be forever grateful to my editor/business owner friend who gave me the chance to work off my debt in a way that fueled an interest and talent that had lain dormant for a dozen years. Modest success there gave me the confidence to sign on as a stringer for a larger, regional paper. My assignment was to cover local news stories and turn up my own human interest stories. I was more successful and prolific at the latter. Our town of 1000 didn’t provide many newsworthy stories for a regional paper. But local readers were generous in feeding me leads, which turned into a fairly steady stream of publishable stories.
I failed or more accurately, refused to cover the one big story out of our community that might have given me greater credibility with the regional paper, not to mention more compensation than the human interest stories. It was the story of a tragic accident effecting two local families. Two dads and their daughters – acquaintances but not close friends – were in a fatal car accident while traveling to the state university to visit their daughters. Both dads and one daughter were killed. The surviving daughter, badly injured, was misidentified as the deceased. A week later, when the error was uncovered, it was a national story. The editor called me to secure pictures from the family. While I wasn’t close to the family, I was close enough to be reluctant to interfere in their grief in this way. I declined.
A few years later, my husband’s work took us to a college community and I secured a position at my alma mater in a neighboring town. I began as a grant writer, eventually taking on more responsibilities until I was appointed director of alumni and church relations, a position I held for ten years. During my tenure at the college, we learned that seed money was available to start a nonprofit retail outlet for fair trade goods. While the college was not interested, I was. Still fairly new to the community and not entirely sure of the procedure and protocol for accomplishing such a thing, I went to my church acquaintances for direction. Within weeks an organizational meeting was called, attended by representatives of nearly all the churches in our community of 5000. From that meeting an organizational team was formed and within a few weeks we had secured a store front, additional funding and dozens of volunteers. Several weeks later the store opened. I continued to serve as the president of the board and volunteer “orderer” for several years until the demands of my paying job exceeded my capacity to give. But the satisfaction of seeing that project through from concept to reality and knowing the difference it was making to the (primarily) women producing the goods was immensely gratifying. I needed no compensation other than that.
And that is the single biggest reason I have spent the bulk of my professional life in the nonprofit sector. I have been fortunate to find work in organizations and institutions I believe in. Few people stay in the nonprofit world for the pay and/or benefits—or at least the monetary kind. The benefits of devoting your life to a cause cannot be measured in dollars and sense. They come in knowing your work, however unrecognized or mundane, is contributing to something bigger and making a difference in individual lives, on a small or grand scale. The teacher who could make two or three times as much money in the corporate world, stays because he/she finds no greater reward than seeing the light go on in a student’s eyes when a concept finally hits home. The staff person at the women’s shelter knows she is a confidant and a reassuring presence in the lives of women who have nowhere else to turn. The rewards in nonprofit work are in lives touched, in rebuilding and restoring the broken places and people in our world.
My nonprofit experience includes both paid and unpaid efforts – including two terms as a board member for a faith-based nonprofit. I will be blogging weekly about what I’ve learned as an employee, volunteer and board member. In the meantime, what’s your nonprofit story? Why have you stayed? I’d love to hear what motivates and inspires your nonprofit efforts—paid or volunteer.