Ask any CEO of a nonprofit about the worst part of their job, and they will almost certainly speak to the never ending struggle to raise funds. I come to that conclusion not only because it is how I respond to the question, but also thanks to nearly six years of interacting with my fellow nonprofit leaders. Grant reports, newsletters, proposals, lunch meetings and calls with potential donors are all critical elements of our job descriptions; yet they, on the face of it, have nothing to do with the mission.
Almost all of us get into the nonprofit sector to serve others and solve problems. What motivates us is knowing that our client’s lives are improved: we like to see the borrower, talk to the recipient of Financial Coaching, and read success stories. Of course we all know that without money, none of this good work can be accomplished. Still, as we spend hours staring at a computer or schmoozing, it can at times feel like you are more a glorified paper-pushed and beggar than agent of social change.
Lately I’ve begun to notice something else resulting from the strain of organizational financial insecurity: it gives one a window of insight into what the poor deal with on a daily basis. Being uncertain as to how to meet payroll next week is not all that disimilar from wondering how to put food on the table. In both instances, so many fears arise: what will happen to my employees? How can I let my children go hungry? What of the clients we serve? Will we be evicted and become homeless?
I long ago decided that attempting to rank one form of struggle with another is a pointless exercise. Is it “worse” to worry about meeting payroll than putting food on the table? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. What I want to highlight is that money in general, and in particular the lack thereof, can be an all consuming source of anxiety, depression and stress. It makes one feel powerless, hopeless, scared, nervous and angry. It often results in bad decision making, alienation and exhaustion.
The best coping mechanism I’ve developed is to maintain a sense of agency; that is, to focus on those things over which I have some control. In my case, I try to keep a list of phone calls to make and grant proposals to submit, for if I don’t, I easibly fall into the trap of waiting for the mail to come in, hoping for a grant award letter and check in tow.
Part of why I believe in our products and services is that they offer to those living on the edge a sesne of that agency. When money is tight, an affordable loan can act as a lifeline. When debt feels overwhelming, a clearly laid out debt management plan can enable one to take a deep breath, identify a path out of the situation, and begin to see a hopeful future.
I think that so much of the debate about poverty, the minumum wage and the social safety net utterly fails to take into consideration the less visible effects of financial instability: the aforementioned stress and despair. Recent research has shown that poverty can actually change the physiology of the brain, making it that much harder to take the steps that can improve one’s lot. That said, I also know that sometimes things are just out of your control; if you can’t find work, if there are simply no jobs available, then there are no “right steps” to take.
Faced with these challenges, we must do our best to look ahead. Whether we have payroll to meet or rent to make, we have no choice but to avail ourselves of all the resources around us–public benefits, mentors, friends and board members–and, with what strength we can muster, plow ahead.