31 March 2018

The Absolute Worst Thing About Working For A Nonprofit

It's 7:43pm on a Tuesday night and you've just hit send on your final email of the evening. You're working late again because, well, you are only one person and you subscribe to the idea of inbox zero, even if it isn't sustainable for you most of the time. A server glitch meant you had to give up two precious hours this morning to help triage phone calls; an unexpected meeting with a colleague took another 45 minutes. You still managed to cross five of the eight things off your to-do list for the day, which isn't bad considering. That last project on there though... oohff. That's going to be a beast. You set your alarm now for early tomorrow morning so you can get in an hour of work before someone else arrives. This is going to be another long week.

I love my job, a fact that is well documented (here, here, and here, among others), but coming into a nonprofit from the fast-paced tech world has been challenging. I'm someone who likes lists and spreadsheets and hyper-efficiency and crossing things off. When I first started nonprofit work nearly five years ago, I had grandiose ideas of quick, easy changes to improve our reach and effectiveness; to make more of a difference in the world. Eventually we were able to do some of those things, and it laid the groundwork for future processes that did make things better. But trust me, it wasn't quick and it wasn't easy.

Over time I've learned what all nonprofit professionals learn: the importance of slowing down, setting realistic expectations, including the right people, and giving the proper credit to accomplishments big and small. One thing is still difficult for me, and it happens almost once a week: having to say no to a perfectly good idea for no reason other than you just can't make it work. 

You find yourself saying things like, "I'd love to do that, but...
  • I don't have the resources."
  • your idea competes with other priorities."
  • we're short staffed at the moment."
All of these reasons are very much real, but in the moment they feel like you're spewing a bunch of BS. What does "no resources" mean? If this is such a good idea, why can't it supplant other priorities? If you're short staffed, just hire someone already!

My friend Claire Smallwood is the Executive Director at SheJumps. She gets a lot of great suggestions and doesn't have the time or resources to say yes to 99% of them. So she created an imaginary Good Idea Bucket. If you have a good idea, but it just isn't possible right now (or ever), into the Good Idea Bucket it goes. 

This situation is not unique to nonprofits, but it certainly seems to happen more to me here than anywhere else. People see a nonprofit mission they care about and want to help, so they reach out to offer free services or advice. The problem is the person on the receiving end already has a very full plate, is working within structures and processes about which the suggester is completely unaware, and has a full-picture view with full-picture ramifications. A solution in one area could result in a problem in another, resulting in more possible solutions and suggestions. More suggestions from well-meaning people means more time the nonprofit staff spends receiving and considering and responding to these messages. It's a spiral, and it's exhausting. 

Last week a high-school student reached out to me looking for a video project for an internship-style program. Her email was professional and well-written, and the sample videos she shared were solid. I'd love nothing more than to come up with a project for her. But with 7-weeks notice and no immediate need for a special video on the horizon, I had to say no. It's a good idea. It'd be a good opportunity for her and for us. But I don't have an extra hour in the next 7-weeks to do the things on my to do list, let alone tackle something new. This proposal, like many before it and after, will have to go into the Good Idea Bucket. I wish this weren't the case.

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