A typical non-profit is created to meet a need within the community or a population. The founders of a non-profit serve their community with little thought to their own personal needs. They create an organization to meet the needs that they see. They write grants and get funding from community groups to do what they dream. They are the dreamers.
I recently met such a person. This gentlemen thinks little of himself and seeks to help others as much as possible. He provides TONS of services to the local community (managing a grant supported computer lab, running a recording studio, organizing local youth to support each other, career training for teens) and hasn’t receive a paycheck for most of his time. This community organizer gets frustrated that others don’t see the vision. He has a difficult time providing the detailed data or explaining his vision in a linear fashion to governing boards and committees. This guy wants to tell the story not the numbers. He is a beautiful idealist who wants to make the world a better place. Yet he doesn’t function on the nuts and bolts level.
But, others don’t see the vision. Board members argue over what he does and how much it costs. Don’t they realize the free services he provides? For example, there was a need for a website supporting the community center and explaining the services available. This community organizer created a website, employing the talents of the teens he supports, training them in the computer skills they needed. Yet, the center argues over the website and demands to know how he got the domain name. It is all written down.
Sometimes I fantasize I am one of these idealists, creators, organizers. I watch Extreme Makeover: Home Edition; I feel I could do something: “Hey, I can feed a hundred people out of my home, or organize a group to support local teens.” But I can’t. I don’t have the deep understanding, patience, or perseverance. I am too lazy. It takes a lot of work to create something, get funding, and keep it going. Also, I have children to support. Or perhaps, I am too jaded. I don’t believe everything someone tells me. I hear a story and will catch myself thinking, “Uh huh, sure.” You know, the running joke that everyone in prison claims to be innocent. Also, it takes the patience of a saint. I would be so frustrated with some of the things my non-profit workers deal with. But I have some of that idealism in me still. I want to make a difference. I want to help someone change his or her life.
Every non-profit needs a nuts and bolts person that has a bit of the dreamer in them. If only dreamers ran things, those things would get pretty messy. Checks wouldn’t get logged, receipts wouldn’t be filed, or budgets wouldn’t be balanced. Think about it: if you are a cross your t’s and dot the i’s personality, the very idea should give you nightmares. A smart person would run for the hills. I should start running, but I am wearing heels. If only reality purists ran things, on the other hand, people in need would be turned away. Non-profits need a bit of both.
A tiny healthy bit of reality can help the dreams grow and succeed further. Even though, sometimes, it feels like trying to nail water to the floor. But I am helping. I may not help the children, but I definitely am helping the creators fulfill their vision. By lending organizational support and business management knowledge, I give those creative dreamers a moment to breathe, to come up out of the pile and find themselves alive. Most likely with the few free breaths I provide them, they will discover another way to help others and get buried under work again. That is who they are.
However, to be successful with the non-profit you have to understand the population and the culture it seeks to serve. For example, my non-profit provides support to homeless teens with the goal of supporting stability and education in their lives. These teens have had very different lives in their young years. They have seen things that I wish they hadn’t. As an adult working with them, you have to be genuine. Teens can smell a fake. You have to be understanding. They will hit you with cold doses of reality, sometimes just to shock you. And you have to support them. They need someone to encourage them to make the right choices and pursue the things (education or skill training) that will give them a better life. They don’t want a parent.
I hope with the support of our program and the caring adults I work with, teens will have a chance at an amazing life. Everyone deserves the chance.