Archive for February, 2014

You’re just out of college, maybe. You’ve got a degree in Art, Philosophy, or, like me, Literary Studies, and you want to do something that’s in your field, the field of humanness.

In many ways, you’re a perfect candidate for nonprofit work. You’ve been educated in the disciplines of Thinking and Creating, you’ve got a reckless drive to understand other humans, you’re idealistic, you’re willing to work hard for little money, etc. I’m generalizing, but let me go a little further and say, most likely, you’re a painter, a writer, a musician, and you want a day-job that won’t scoop out your brain and hand it to you by its ragged stem ’round 3 pm—you want a job that will allow you to go home and keep doing your creative work. Again, a nonprofit job might seem like a reasonable answer. As reasonable as any. You have to earn money somehow, you might as well do something useful. You like people and also the idea of people. Why not.

My time among nonprofits has been brief. I’ve spent a total of three years working for two organizations that each provided emergency assistance to low-income people—similar programs, very different experiences. I’ve done a little bit of everything. Client services, prevention, outreach, fundraising, grant-writing, data-entry. Hours and hours of data-entry. In some ways I feel like an old hand. And I’ve met a lot of people, a lot of humanities majors. I was surprised to learn, during that first, golden job—the job I didn’t realize was so rare—that many of my peers were having tough times.

Maybe you’ve heard the rumors about nonprofits. How sometimes they’re not the best?

My first job was great. I won’t be talking about that one much.

It’s the second job you need to know about, as that’s the kind you’ll run into more often. I don’t have any statistics, just an educated guess.

This much is true. Just as nonprofits can attract the hardworking and human-loving, they can also offer havens for those who have no business in the people-helping business. And some of those qualities that make you an ideal employee at a functional nonprofit will make the conditions at a dysfunctional one completely unbearable to you; these conditions will affect you, they will weigh on you, they will burn you out.

I’m telling you this, dear humanities grads, because you, perhaps more than most, have a chance to change things. I’m talking to the real-deal, die-hard humanities majors here. You know who you are. You got integrity. You got grit. You can’t help yourselves.

You, my friends, have a natural commitment to the ideas that make nonprofits work. You’ve got a commitment to thinking. And you have a rare kind of optimism, and a belief in human potential, or you wouldn’t have had any interest in studying the enduring products of thought and creative impulse. You just wouldn’t have believed such studies were worthwhile.

Like I said, my first job was great. But I was in an office all day, working at a computer, and didn’t have the brainpower to sit at another computer and do my own writing when I got home. So, this time around, I opted for a more active position—as an outreach worker for a program that served homeless and runaway youth.

Unfortunately, it was everything I’d been warned about. I’ll sum it up: fragile people, meaning well, doing harm—or doing nothing at all.

I’m not saying that other workplaces are immune to the problems of laziness, poor leadership, tragic incompetence, and blind faith in fallible human beings. But nonprofits serve clients, not customers. Nonprofits like the ones I worked for are responsible for the effective delivery of services to desperate people who depend on them when everything else has fallen through, when everything in their lives is lying in a heap at their feet. And nonprofits are also accountable to the individuals and agencies who fund them—to the public at large. The stakes are high. Standards should be, too.

You get that. It would be hard for you to accept anything less. You’re just not the type.

I hope I’m not being presumptuous. Of course, I’m speaking in general terms. It’s just that I know it’s hard for you to do things you don’t believe in.

Please know: nonprofits need you, humanities graduates! They need your weird brains and your whole hearts. Don’t deprive them, and don’t deprive yourselves, either. This is the kind of work that changes you. It can make your art better. It can make you better.

Even if you fail.

When I went into my second job,  I knew it could be three years before things would start improving for most of the youth I worked with, and that many would be homeless for the rest of their lives. I went into it, knowing that. I was prepared to put in those years, to bear witness, to help when I could. I wanted to contribute to one of those rare, precious spaces—a space that nurtured humanness and human potential, and held those who entered in unconditional positive regard. I did that, I did some of that.

I kept getting up early, kept writing my stories. At my job, I kept thinking. I kept trying—even after I handed in my resignation letter.


“You throw yourself away to be an artist.” That’s what action-painter Ushio Shinohara says in the documentary, Cutie and the Boxer.

I don’t think so, though. You never throw yourself away when you do the work that matters to you, and try to do it well. Or maybe, more likely, you throw yourself away no matter what. You sacrifice something no matter what you do. You take some unknowable spiritual risk.

I have advice. Just one more piece of advice.

You’re a thinker, a writer, an artist, a creator. At the end of the day, you’ll always have your lovely, lovely brain to come home to. Let it do its work.

What it does, your brain, it does well. But it can’t save anyone but you.

Let it.



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