Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Tiresome work. . .

People call me frequently to ask about employment in the non-profit sector. Or, they want advice on how to begin a non-profit organization. Some call with particular interest in going to work for or starting another group to address the needs of "the poor."

While I do my best to be polite, and while I almost never turn down a call from or an appointment with persons with such interests and concerns, I often want to ask these folks if they've considered therapy!

I'll admit it: I'm a bit tired today.

Don't get me wrong. I'm nowhere near being ready to stop, to quit or to give up. They'll have to drag me off out of the ring by my feet, cause I'll never call it quits.

I'm just tired.

I won't be quitting anytime soon because the last 15 years have helped me understand my fatigue. Let me attempt an explanation of sorts. Maybe you'll relate.

Everyone starts with charity. We want to relieve the immediate and intolerable suffering of people who are hungry, homeless, rejected, marginalized, left out or behind, failing, jailed, addicted, lost, ill, or in some other fashion cut off from life today.

Never mind tomorrow. Action is called for today, and often now.

We can think about the challenges of tomorrow during the middle of the night, but we must never turn away from today and its presenting pain.

Charity focuses narrowly on today. It concerns itself with the needs and complaints and fears of right now. And, it seeks to deliver direct relief, one person at a time to do its work.

Charity can wear you out.

Not only does it direct attention to the immediate and persistent suffering of today, it forces those engaged in relief to work hard to bring help, but it also demands that those who do so also devote considerable time and effort to enlisting the assistance of outsiders who must be urged, cajoled and motivated to provide funding for the enterprises of compassion. Like the work performed in the relief of suffering, the gifts must come today as well.

Recently, a good friend pointed out the hard, but obvious, truth that every non-profit must almost completely recapitalize itself every year in order to carry on its work. Take it from me, that is a tall order.

No matter how we might wish it were otherwise, charity endures. It is essential and it grows tiresome the longer you stay at it. This is true because charity seldom if ever reaches the scale demanded to achieve the systems change needed to keep folks from falling into conditions calling for charity's relief. As suffering continues, charitable gifts must be subscribed, solicited and recognized with a view to the ongoing need for more and continued donations.

Those who work among "the poor" long enough and with enough "success" sooner or later recognize the need to influence and adjust the systemic forces that contribute to the creation of poverty and to the conditions that keep people living with less than they really require.

Such recognition leads to an entirely different, new and even more challenging body of work. To change the system of things requires lots of hours, study, relationship formation and building, negotiation, influencing and becoming generally "political" in a non-partisan and practical way.

Somewhere in between traditional charity work and the work of systems influence and reform, you run into hybrid opportunities through which non-profits working with "the poor" can access new sources of funding from the public sector. These funds are not typically designed to create systemic changes, but they do allow organizations to grow to a new scale that produces more impact with more sustainable stability and that touches more people.

Here the non-profit leader and organization must remain clear-headed, lest he or she think that the new funding and the increased scale ensures the necessary change to turn back the forces that keep people in poverty. The funding is nice, and brings with it a new sort of influence, but the organization that grows content enough to "stay put" in this phase or state needs to reconsider its values and its strategy.

To cut deeply at the heart of the system that produces so many millions of "poor people" policy work must be done continually.

In my view, this policy reform will require new public approaches from government at all levels from local to federal. In addition, the way business functions must also be included in any viable approach to working for systemic change on behalf of the growing masses of "poor people."

In short, government and business must learn to function differently as joint investors in the reform and renewal of the economic life of those at the bottom of our society. Such new partnerships and investments will be based on the recognition that lifting the poorest among us will benefit us all, and in surprising ways. For most impact such new partnerships must be crafted at the local, regional, state and national levels.

Then, there is the community itself. My neighbors who live with me in inner city Dallas must remain the most important characters of all in the play in which we are all actors. They have the leading roles. The script must unfold around them and their lines. We must hear, recognize, analyze and honor the heroic parts they play, understanding at every turn they have been left out of the production for far too long by most producers and not a few directors!

Working with a community, truly honoring community people who also understand deep poverty through their personal experience takes time, effort, patience, humility and a different sort of appreciation, understanding and wisdom that is not naturally part of our national value system. In my view, this is our most important, most rewarding and most demanding work of all.

Effective non-profit leaders interested in affecting the change we need will spend themselves in all of these areas and concern themselves with all of these matters.

The result can be weariness and fatigue.

Today, I am tired.

Ironically, when I experience the next breakthrough, it will be after lots and lots of very tiring work in these varied arenas. But, in the breakthrough I will find the renewal that keeps me going for another round.

Every breakthrough, by definition, means that low-income neighbors of mine or groups of such neighbors all across the city and beyond will find it easier to do better for themselves and for their families, if they are blessed to have families.

So, if you want to talk about any of this, consider calling a counselor first before you call me.

If you insist on talking to me, I'll be ready to visit. . .next week, after Labor Day.


Anonymous said...

I have no doubt that your fatigue is deep and genuine and with good cause. I think I get it.

I think back to my (full-time) ministry days. You never felt finished. Ever.

But I think the problem, unique in your arena, does have parallels in the "rest of the working world." I think of the Barbara Ehrenreich book NIckel and Dimed, about the work that never provides enough to catch up and get ahead. And I think about the current insecurity in today's job market.

Yes, you have to re-capitalize every year, but a whole lot of people have to work in arenas where the top management is trying to lay off as many as possible, over and over again. This is to either increase profits, or simply stay alive. There are a whole lot of former auto workers who have seen their entire industry become a perpetual land of insecurity.

I think fatigue may be the dominant trait of this economic era. And the wide-spread fatigue and insecurity simply adds to your burden to do charity for today.

In re-living the years of Bobby Kennedy, and Ted Kennedy, in the last few days at the death of Teddy, it is clear that the needs of the poor are deep, and abiding. But now, in a new way, the needs of the "middle" seem to be creeping in to your work as well. So -- I understand that you are tired. Just as those who seek your help are tired. And just as those who seek your counsel about getting into non-profit work are tired... (I suspect that more than a few of those folks are looking at your arena because they are so uncertain in their own).

Do I have solutions? No. But I think it is a deep, deep problem.

(I recently blogged about this era of fatigue: "Is Everybody Tired, or is it Just Me? — Energy and Time Management in the Midst of Challenging Times"

Randy Mayeux

Larry James said...

Thanks, Randy. As always, thoughtful and full of insight.

Karen said...

You and yours are doing something radical. This is exhausting, because there is very little in the 'system' which resonates with it -- since it's new ground. And yet... it is the only way real change occurs.

I also admire that your leadership allows those within your organization to express their own opinions freely. This is rare in nonprofits, in my experience.

Keep on keepin' on. I know you will.