“We… must decide what’s most important/ And I cant help the poor if I’m one of them/ So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win-win.”
This line from a Jay Z summarizes the well-meaning, but poorly-thought out idiom behind much of the thinking that allows people who work in nonprofits to transition from that sector into for-profits and not feel the pain of departure. The youth movement is built on the shoulders of young adults who proclaim their allegiance to children and youth and mission, and from my 20+ years experience working in many parts of the nonprofit sector, a lot of movements are built this way. Powerful folks gallivant about with moral righteousness and clarity of thought, determined to do right things on behalf of and towards the communities they serve.
However, after a time the pragmatic fogginess of life sets in, and as kids come and bills grow, we’re faced with the reality that this work is poverty-driven, both in terms of the people who we serve and our own salaries. Faced with that reality, many folks justify transitioning from nonprofit worker easily: watching the executive directors of large nonprofit organizations we become distinctly aware that we’re worth more, that we have more ability and capacity than what our menial jobs pay, and that we want it – now.
Consequently we start our own organizations, go to work for the government, or jump into the private sector. At different points in my career I have done all three to varying degrees. I started CommonAction as my attempt to create the organization I always wanted to work for; alas, I am no Sergey Brin or Larry Page. I worked for a private curriculum publishing company, which did nothing to contribute towards me earning millions of dollars. And at different points, including right now, I’ve worked for the government. So please don’t get me wrong – I understand.
However, the notion that somehow earning tons of money and simply giving it back to the communities or scenarios we come from will alleviate our personal problems and set us into a professional paradise is a falsity, to say the least. The simple fact of the matter is that giving, true and uninhibited giving, comes from the heart, not the pocketbook. I understand the need to make a buck – I grew up in abject poverty – situational, true, but abject all the same. As an adult I work for nothing less than to meet all my needs. But that’s where my fiscal motivation ends; from there it is simply personal motivation that matters.
That is an important caveat here: If your heart isn’t in the work, don’t do it. Don’t serve youth, help the homeless, save the animals or fundraise for the whales if you don’t feel the drive to do it. Get out while the getting is good – or simply available. However, before you go take a good, strong look at the situation you’re in and ask whether your desire is dampened by the ineffectuality of nonprofit work in general, or the ineptitude of the organization or organizations you’ve worked in. Really examine whether you want to jump ship because of the overall reality you’re in, or because of the particular situation you face on a particularly bad day.
Once you’ve gone through all that come back to me and tell me about the “win-win.” While you’re at it maybe you can explain to me why pop rappers are defining the mentality of powerful, positive people, too. We can reach higher than that.