Most people who choose a career path in nonprofit did so because of an emotional epiphany. At some point, he or she witnessed an injustice that sparked outrage. They experienced a moment that conjured the impatience necessary to start living a life that helps others to live theirs.
I remember mine. I was very, very young and Mom described to my sister and me life under the Khmer Rouge. The image that has stood out in my mind is of her younger brother being punished for trying to steal pumpkins for their family. She told the story holding a bowl of rice, picked up a small bit with her fingers, and said that’s all they had to every day. Her brother was tied to a pole and forced to stand in front of the village holding the pumpkins while everyone else ate. She broke into tears.
I’ve had that — along with other graphic images of her family members’ deaths — engraved into my psyche for as long as I can remember. That’s why, when it came time to choose a career path, I chose nonprofit.
However, over the last five years, there have been a lot of disenchanting experiences that made me wonder what’s the point? Learning about the bureaucracies of large organizations; witnessing the counter-productive structure of American Social Security; compromising a mission in order to fulfill a grant requirement.
Everyone’s career is plagued by the reality that passion isn’t the only thing fueling an organization. Running a children’s center, for instance, means spreadsheets are just as important as crayons and markers; schmoozing will help fund a new project; fluency in HTML code is the best way to advertise your mission statement. At some point, everyone needs an tailored dress or suit and table etiquette.
It’s easy to forget what the point is when you’re working on the internal structure. I’m a desk jockey, so I can create a pivot table in 5 seconds and leave at the end of the day without paint splattered across my shirt. This was a really, really sad realization.
My outrage was losing its spark. That is, until I went to the Sihanoukville dump with our social worker to track down two small children.
To be continued…