Beyond "Nonprofit"

Friday, May 1, 2009 (All day)

College students, around this time of year, seek summer internships. We’ve been approached by a few. One young woman from BrandeisUniversity will spend two months with Community Partners starting in June. We selected her because she made a strong case for why our work seemed well matched to her interests. We loved that she made the case so persuasively to Brandeis that they decided to fully fund her internship.

Not everyone acquits themselves quite so well.

I’ve been approached on several occasions by young people who “want to get into nonprofit.” Right out of the box, their use in that sentence of that odd singular form – nonprofit – clues me to a certain fuzziness in their ambitions. As I scratch the surface a bit, I learn that they want to “make a difference,” “work with people” and “do good work.” All honorable goals, of course, and I always embrace sincere expressions of idealism and humanity.

When young folks say “I want to get into nonprofit,” I think they mean “service that advances caring communities and a fair society.” “I want to work in a place I care about,” I think they mean, “suffused with decency and where the ratio between my work and my hopes for a better world is one to one.” 

The affection I feel when I hear such optimism has a counterweight. I want – perhaps too quickly – to offer protection by stripping scales from the eyes of babes that may blind them to tough realities.

So I’ve started telling young people who adore community to also start loving politics and venerating government service. 

“Love politics?” they ask, astonished. “Hold government in high esteem?”

I don’t discount their skepticism. Except during the recent Obama phenomenon, most people in their early to mid-twenties have grown up inflicted with crackpot messages that those two words – politics and government – represent the twin evils of the modern era. 

Then I tell them to understand business better than anyone else. And their hackles rise at such a sell-out admonition. “Work in the fortress of greed?” they ask. 

It’s no wonder they get dreamy and romantic about “nonprofit.”

And so I explain. Achieving the caring society they desire hinges on how public sector power and moneyed commercial interests are re-balanced – or not – in the years ahead. Incentives or disincentives elected officials encode in legislation have a lot to do with how resources will flow to address the causes and curses they care about curing. As for business, last I looked, most employers weren’t overreaching in the social sphere – unless you take into account that commercial wealth and innovation sure do keep a lot of folks productively occupied, earning money and out of dire need. That’s why “nonprofit” just isn’t enough. Plan to work in some way in those other places, too, is what I tell them. Effective citizens know all the spheres and appreciate the power and problems of each.

If anything, working in “nonprofit,” the least financially robust of the spheres, means a career of endless vigilance, keeping an eye on the ways and wherefores of power everywhere else and in your own back yard. And you can only understand power – let alone speak truth to it – by studying it up close and seeing how it’s wielded. Seeing all the forces at work – and not just those that are attractively humane – anchors ideals in solid ground and does more than anything else to keep the light of passion burning bright.