Those of you who know me well know that I have spent nearly two decades as a PR Chick of some type–non-profit, government and private sector–and that my “hobby” has been disaster response, more specifically with the Red Cross. Then in June of 2008, while I was actually taking time off from my job to volunteer with the Red Cross (in West Virgina), my own home flooded. But it wasn’t just my home, it was hundreds of other people’s homes as well. Pretty much everyone in my whole community was affected in some way, many much worse than I was.
My husband and I were very lucky, we had friends close by to help, we had some basic disaster recovery/mitigation knowledge and, quite frankly, he’s a bit of a McGyver, and was able to rig up pumps and other devices to help limit the damage to our home. A few months later, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came my way, a chance to head up the local long-term flood recovery program. For the first time ever, I could combine my passion for disaster with my practical PR side–a marriage made in heaven!
We have accomplished a great deal more than anyone really planned or expected, but I’ll be honest, I certainly didn’t think it would be such a struggle to get this done. I DID think it would be hard work and that people would become tired and worn out, I just didn’t anticipate the barriers thrown up by other non-profits.
I totally get that everyone doesn’t think exactly alike and that there are going to be disagreements and that solutions are going to be frequently knitted together out of compromises–that’s not what I am talking about. I am talking about real, systemic problems that force non-profits to be competitive with each other instead of cooperative. Everyone is so busy fighting over the scraps, that they miss the 5-course meal that could be sitting right in front of them. Sort of the Stone Soup idea, if we all worked together, we could all eat better (and I am ALL about eating).
It’s probably naive that I didn’t notice this the first time I worked for a non-profit, or maybe even the second time, or maybe it just wasn’t as obvious then as it is now. Who knows? The point is, it’s here and I don’t want it to stay. It is not a productive way to do business (yes, non-profits are businesses) and it certainly doesn’t deliver more, better or faster services to those who need them the most.
I don’t really know what the answer is, but what I do know is that my job here is done. We’ll be closing the doors of our long-term flood recovery program on Dec. 17th, 2010. The organization will transition to a group that helps get the community ready for the next disaster AND it will be completely managed and run by volunteers. I’m actually thrilled about it. It seems like the model of a non-profit that meets the needs of the community and then shuts down, or in this case, morphs into a lean, mean volunteer machine is a far better model than an organization that goes on and on just because it’s always been there.
Since I knew that my time was limited and our organization was well-funded, I had the luxury of not having to involve my ego or my continued lively hood in every decision that was made. It was VERY freeing! And completely stymied many of the non-profit executives I worked with. They really couldn’t believe that I didn’t have an ulterior motive or a hidden agenda, it was difficult for some of them to accept this and focus on the work that needed to be done. More importantly, many of them wondered how they could access the bounty of funds that our agency was given, it was almost like sibling rivalry. “Why can’t I have that toy? I’m older!” To say the least, I felt like I spent a lot of time on the defensive explaining why whose funds were given to our agency and what they could (and couldn’t) be used for–never a comfortable feeling.
Regardless, as I said, my job is done, but not my work. I have decided that it’s time for a new start for both me and the non-profit world. I know I can’t personally change all the issues I’ve seen, but I CAN change how I approach the causes I care about and the organizations I give my time and energy to. So, with that in mind, I’m setting out to look for my next adventure and a new beginning!
I’ll keep you posted on what I find and I’d love to hear what you are doing to make your community a more wonderful place to live.