The spirit of service

Most people get into nonprofit work because they want – in some way, big or small – to change the world.  This spirit of service defines our missions, which are not vague platitudes about “delighting customers” or delivering “superior results to our stakeholders,” but are real, tangible, and laudable: end malarial deaths in Africa by 2015, feed the hungry in New York City, make the foster care system work for kids, enable every kid in Harlem to go to college.

And yet.

And yet we get busy with “the job,” and it can become more real and more palpable than the mission.  We sit at desks day after day looking at spreadsheets or writing yet another report, and though we hear the echo of why we’re there, this original purpose can morph – not immediately, but eventually – into background noise.

We’re wired, fundamentally, only to experience fully the reality in front of us.  And because our daily interactions, the stresses of life, the honest considerations about our own goals and aspirations, dominate our experience, there’s the risk that this day-to-day reality gets decoupled from the spirit of service we expect to pervade our work.  And so, like at any job, there are high points and low points, successes and disappointments, days when our contributions are recognized and days when someone (peer, boss, donor, board member) is careless in how they speak to us.  We, too, have highs and lows.


Unless we take every opportunity to stoke the fire that burns within – for ourselves and for our peers.

Unless we look for chances to keep that flame lit, by giving our employees, our volunteers, our donors a chance to feel, breathe, see and touch the service that is at the core of what we do.

Unless we create space to swap stories, whether close by or far away, of people whose lives have been transformed by our work.

Unless we find moments, hours, days, to pull back from the frenzy that pervades our days (how could it not? The problems are so big, our urgency so great) to reconnect to the original sense of what we’re here to do.

We are blessed to have the privilege to serve others.  And it is a privilege.  There is no higher calling.

From that kernel of truth, I’ve no choice but to wonder: is it naïve to think that we might conceptualize our professional lives differently?  Is it possible that the question “what’s best for me, for my career, for my life?” should pale in comparison to the question “am I doing the most good I can possibly do?”

Because I do believe that one has a different orientation when one says, “I’m here to make a change in the world” (goal-oriented, and with it ego) and when one says, “I’m here to serve.”  To be sure, if we, our employees, our volunteers, our donors do not feel nourished, respected, honored, and challenged, then there is no way we can serve others effectively.  But are careers dedicated to service fundamentally different?  What is the right balance here?

12 thoughts on “The spirit of service

  1. I think nonprofit organizations often make the assumption that those of us who have chosen to work in them automatically feel nourished, challenged, respected and honored because the organization is (presumably) doing good and making a difference. If the organization is not growing or meeting new challenges then you, as an individual, are not allowed to grow. If every new idea is met with, “That will never work,” or “We just need you to focus on what you’ve always done,” then frustration about what the organization COULD be doing sets in and that translates into personal frustration. The organization and its purpose and the individual and his or her purpose and highest self are perhaps even more intertwined in nonprofits BECAUSE we seek to serve, because we are in fact DRIVEN to serve and we won’t settle for less.

  2. I think that the potential is different, not because of the structure of the organization, but because of the potential when there is alignment between what I am called to do, and being of service. When I am expressing that calling (my vocation) through my work, the potential is for the flame of my calling to be shared with those around me, lighting their way and warming them. They may be my peers and colleagues, or people I’m serving through the work I do or do with others.
    When I run into roadblocks or am too tired or stressed, I lose that alignment. I am short with people around me, and in my frustration the flame of my vocation may turn into a blowtorch that singes, rather than comforts and inspires others.
    In answer to your question, I think that the right balance occurs when individuals’ personal calling is aligned with the service goal of the organization, or the role they play in that organization – and their calling is valued in that organization. Someone who is called to crunch numbers and pay the bills needs to be just as valued for their contributions as the person who provides direct aid to the sick, for instance. The organization needs both, and each person needs to be expressing their vocation. Only when that is happening will individuals and organizations be able to answer “yes” to the question “am I (are we) doing the best we can possibly do?”

  3. Sasha, You make a very good point.

    Whether we’re employed in a non-profit or volunteering on our local school parent teacher organization, we run the risk of losing the reason why we serve.

    In my humble opinion, it is up to each of us to make sure we connect often with the constituents of the organization we’re serving. Sometimes, we have to create a new path to do that. Maybe the first step is just to identify someone the organizations is helping, and see how that person can be better served.

    Here are a few more thoughts.

  4. Eric, thanks for this and I love you post and the commitment to have your resolutions live throughout the year. Great blog!

  5. The question is whether not-for-profit organizations should always stay relatively small? I am sure that most of the huge charitable bureaucracies that are around now once started out with the same energy and passion that is still going around in the corridors of Acumen.

    There was once a Dutch software company (“BSO” I think), that decided to split itself in 2 (like a biological cell) as soon as a cell hit 60 people.

  6. @Sasha

    Being the founder of a growing (er.. exploding) organization, I have come to understand that I the entrepreneur serve a very different purpose than the enterprise. I am here to “save the world” and to do so the organization(s) I build must be here to “serve”.

    It is not about ego, but about achieving sustainable impact at the end of the day, and my staff who “serve” my strategic whims would get bored of their job were it not for the amusement they receive watching me trying to “save the world”.


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