Monday, June 22, 2009

The X Factor: Remembering and Understanding the Sacrifice During These Times

I recently read a couple articles outlining the challenges of working in the nonprofit field. One article about arts organizations, Adam Thurman, states "You deserve to work at an organization that produces great art, treats people with respect and pays fairly. No matter how much people may tell you otherwise those three goals are NOT mutual exclusive." Another article, by Rosetta Thurman, according to blogger Kate Barr, states "Rosetta Thurman confronts the self-induced damage of low wages, chip on the shoulders image of many nonprofit employees." Finally, Kate begins her blog by stating that "I am completely convinced that leadership will be the only determining factor for the survival and success of nonprofits throughout this recession". I would agree with Kate, but I think the X Factor is something that many have always had in this business but is often forgot. It was initial spark and driving energy that fueled our work early in our careers. This is what is most often missing in organizations.

Case in point. I visit a lot of board meetings. I actually enjoy it. My wife and kids recently went to the beach and I had to stay back a couple days. On one of the evenings I attended a board meeting for a large group working on behalf of family poverty. I looked forward to it (we can talk later about whether I need counseling or not). The meeting was 3 hours and not once did I hear an inkling of what the organization was about or why anyone cared about it. Contrast that to a meeting I attended at NYU, where I am a professor. I was asked to attend a meeting of students who had formed an effort on behalf of the non-profit sector. I heard the mission in almost every statement made. Can you tell me which meeting was more focused and effective. The students, of course.

What was missing in the earlier group. These individuals, all very highly accomplished professionally, had been mired in the stink of organizational process and they had developed this way for sometime, almost developing a muscle for working on small fires than working on behalf of the mission. When I weighed in on what their central purpose was and how did they think their efforts were going to have an impact on their community in 5-10 years, they became recharged. It was if I awoke a sleeping giant.

To my original point, we must remember why we got into this business. When I was 16 and helped organize and lead a march in my community around crime or work on behalf of the NAACP on racial issues, mission came way before income. When we start talking about the sector as if it is a company with the same end of the day issues, I think we lose the power of the sector. I am not saying the fair pay and these areas are not important, but they should not be the dominating factor. The idea is to not "just be leaders" but to summon that spark that got us here in the first place and let that be our compass.

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