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It’s Hard to Get Respect When Your Shoes Are Worn Out

I love shoes.

Unfortunately, I wear out shoes quickly. Very quickly.  And, I’ve found that when my shoes are worn out, I have to fight even harder to get respect.

I’m not sure that people who work in the for-profit world will understand, but anyone who works for a community-based nonprofit organization will – especially those who work for social service agencies.  Our shoes , just like us, are  often worked  and worn to the bone.

We  are a unique breed that must band together. Our biggest battles aren’t necessarily a result of working directly with the people who need help or of the perception that they are undeserving, lazy or simply crazy.

Sometimes, our biggest battles are with people who support our organization, a cause or a specific project.

I should know.

For almost twenty years, I’ve worked for community-based nonprofit organizations.  And while the work is exhausting, it’s also meaningful and educational.

But now, my career path is about to change slightly, so before I leave my comrades, I feel the need to share a few words of wisdom with our board members, our volunteers and our donors:

1.  We greatly appreciate you. We know the work we do wouldn’t be possible without you. We know you care, and we know you are compassionate.

2.  Your compassion doesn’t mean you are qualified to do our jobs.

3.  We do our jobs because we are both compassionate AND skilled.

4. Your bank account doesn’t mean that you know more about the issues than we do. Not only do we have the training and the work experience, many of us work in the trenches because we have ” been there.”  Sometimes, because of our salaries, we are still there. Please listen to us.

5. Don’t assume you are more educated than we are. Most nonprofit and social services jobs require, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree for a position that often doesn’t pay as much as an entry-level, administrative assistant job in the business world.

6.  Don’t assume that our ONLY motivation is helping people. That’s a primary motivation, but we still need to pay the bills. Keeping agency administrative costs low is important, but keeping them too low may be hurting the people who are trying to do the most good. It may also limit your pool for people who can fill key leadership positions.

7. Don’t assume that staff doesn’t care about salary and benefits (or lack thereof) because we have spouses/partners who, in your eyes, have”a real job.” The work we do is “ a real job.” Many of our jobs require a license.  The helping profession is bound by ethical, legal and professional practices that have been put in place for a reason.

8. Don’t assume that just because we don’t get personally involved with clients that we don’t care. We probably care more than you will ever know. But because we are educated in our field and because we often hold a license, we have to behave in a professional manner that will limit liability while improving outcomes for the client.

9. We know that when you work with our organizations you are volunteering, and we appreciate your time more than you will ever know.  But don’t assume we are lazy or not committed to the cause because, at the end of the work day, we don’t have the energy to volunteer to do the same thing we do day in and day out.

10.  Disregarding staff in times of key leadership decisions only leads to poor morale. When a key staff person is leaving, other staff members should be consulted as to what skills and leadership style would fit with the team before the selection process even begins. Staff should even be consulted about their interest in a leadership position.

11. The nonprofit and social service sector is composed primarily of females.  Falling back on the “good old boys” network for leadership is taking a step backwards, not forwards. It doesn’t sit well with female staff, donors or volunteers.

12. Board members have to play an active role and not simply serve as a rubber stamp for decisions that may have been presented by someone with an agenda. You can always go back to the drawing board – don’t feel like your options are limited to what is presented to you at a board meeting.

These words of advice are based on my long-term work for community nonprofits.  That work will end when I walk out the door of my current employer this Friday and into the door of my new employer the following Monday.

As would be expected, my departure has led to an appreciation I never knew existed (see suggestions Number 10 and 11).

So for all the people who, over the past few weeks, have told me that I’m leaving some  really  big shoes to fill, I apologize if I haven’t accepted the compliment with grace.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiments.  I just know my shoes are really worn out.

Whoever takes my job not only needs to put on their own pair of shoes, they also have the opportunity to point those shoes in their own direction.

And I’m sure that direction will lead to a lot of great accomplishments.

Want to Be Successful? Try Living United Rather Than Living Divided

There are a lot of ways to define success.  My definition often depends on my mood and on the balance in my check book.

But most of the time, I fall back on the definition that just seems to make the most sense:  Success isn’t measured by the size of your bank account, by the number of people who admire you (or who fear you) or by the number of awards you’ve received. Success is defined by the positive difference you make in the lives of others.

I say that because I am extremely fortunate to be surrounded by successful people. These are people who humble me. People who make me want to be a better person. People who give far more than anyone would ever expect, and in many cases, far more than I am capable of giving myself.

I’m more than simply fortunate. I’m down right grateful. If it weren’t for these successful people, I couldn’t do my job.

For those of you who don’t know what I do, you aren’t alone. I’m not sure my husband even knows what I do.

Sometimes I tell people that I work in the community to address health and human service issues. Sometimes I tell people that I get to spend the money that others raise for the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle.  And sometimes I tell people that I herd cats.

But none of those simple descriptions defines the scope of my job:  every day, I get to work with a wide variety of community members who simply want to make a difference in the lives of others. And I get the privilege of watching them succeed.

During this past  week, when some of these committed volunteers were deliberating over the best way to invest donor dollars, an article that mentioned that United Way of the Eastern Panhandle was published in our local paper, the Martinsburg Journal. Twenty years ago, this article would have simply been an account of an event . But, thanks to the internet, people can now anonymously express their opinion about every article. Or the content of every article. Or their perceived content of every article. Or about any person, business, or organization mentioned in the article.

In this case, people took the opportunity to bash the United Way.  The comments ranged from claiming the United Way is a racist organization to claiming that we use donor dollars inefficiently. For anyone familiar with the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle, these individuals obviously don’t understand the organization. Or more importantly, they don’t understand WHO the United Way is.  Most likely, they don’t care.

While the internet has added so many wonderful opportunities — from  social networks that let us re-connect with people from our past to a wide variety of information at our fingertips – – it also provides the opportunity for people to hide behind anonymous names and cruelly attack just about anything and anyone. Not only do they spew their negativity as though they were are an authority on the subject of they day, but they seem to take pride when others take the bait.    And, unfortunately, these people mistakenly believe they are thriving.  But they aren’t – – quite the opposite, in fact.

Thriving  people are those  who spend their time and energy building others up  rather than tearing others down.  The kind of people who I’m surrounded by every day:

  •  Staff and volunteers who work for nonprofit, service and faith-based  partner organizations, and who have such  passion for a cause that they often put the  needs of the organization and the clients above their own.
  • Community members who raise dollars that are used to make a measurable difference in the lives of others, such as a  local businessperson who continues to ask for donations despite being turned down again and again and again.
  • Individuals who donate what they can, even when they are struggling to make ends meet.   These are people who, even when they don’t  have an extra penny in their pocket, will hold a fundraiser so they can still give something.  (Interesting, studies have shown that lower income people give a larger percentage of their income to charity than do the rich .  Some experts think this is because they have needed help or have a family member or friend who has received assistance, and they know how important giving back is.)

These are the most successful people I know.  Because, despite the size of their bank account, despite their educational status and despite the number of times they’ve been criticized, they are making their little corner of the world a lot  better.

And, ironically, they are so busy doing the right thing, they don’t have any time to do the wrong thing… or to post anonymous, critical  comments online.