tired institutions

All over Canada non-profit institutions are facing a similar challenge, older volunteers, shrinking government supports, a public overwhelmed with fundraising requests, and a need from marginalized people that continues to grow. What to do? The human response is anxiety at what will be the future of this group, of this work, and weariness at the growing realization that a small number of people, an aging body of people, will be facing more work with less supports. It can all lead to a very discouraging experience.

What to do? My experience in the world is that personnel tend to move about, place to place, hoping a new setting with lift them out of the malaise. Sometimes it works, often it does not. A government job used to be a parachute that would allow personnel to jump out of the non-profit sector and into high wages, better benefits and more security long term. But now governments are letting people go, hiring on a contract basis, and the vetting process is extensive.

So what to do? At this stage of my life, 53 years of age, I know my skill set is not extensive and that employers are unlikely to be knocking at my door. My assets are memory, energy and being able to consider the needs of others. Beyond that the list gets pretty thin. There are hundreds, if not thousands, who can do what I do. So how do I keep the anxiety fears at bay, how can I focus on what I am doing and not let my concerns about providing for my family overwhelm me?

I’ve developed a strategy that works for me as a Minister, as an outreach worker, as a volunteer. It may not work for others, but it has paid high dividends for me. That strategy is taking stock of places where I can make a difference to others, assessing what I have to offer to make that difference real and then systematically working through a checklist of things needed to move the plan from process to plan to completion.

At the end of my long days I sit down with the items I have listed on a piece of paper that I identified as important at 6 am. I go through this list, item by item, to see what I completed, what I started (they go back on the list) and what I did not get to (they go to the top of the list for the next day!). At 10 pm what I has been done goes into my soul as a “difference”, a sense that no matter what happens tomorrow on this day, on the days previously, I made a difference. I did not just have good intentions I had good outcomes.

The other part of this plan is to think ahead, so I am not just reacting to crisis and what lands in my lap. I think to spend time every day thinking what needs to be done for 3 months down the road, 6 months down the road, a year from now. I include these items on my to-do list as well.

Non-profits need to have similar plans and outcomes as an agency, these list buttress morale, lift the spirits of personnel and those who count on these groups to be involved in their community. Even though this strategy does not guarantee government support, more volunteers, additional staff, it does create within the body a sense that whatever happens in the future we can have some peace that the past and present were not wasted in gritting of teeth, the wringing of hands. There may well be a catharsis in expressing our anxiety but if we dwell too much on that and not enough on making a difference with the resources we have we run the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We can all make a difference.