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 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?