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Burned to a Crisp

This post isn’t going to tell you anything you haven’t been told before.  Today, I just don’t care. And actually, that’s the point…because, really how could I?

How is it that we can get so lost in doing good? Volunteerism is on the rise for young people, national service is finally receiving some political support and widespread attention, and the non-profit sector still exists. What could be wrong with that?

Let me just give you a glimpse into the life of a typical non-profit worker:

My job as a non-profit Social Worker: I have no skills and have received no training for the work I do.  I am forced to take a 1/2 hour unpaid break for every six hours I work (or one hour for every eight).  My hourly pay is $11. The last time my employer gave me a raise was three years ago. My Christmas bonus is a $15 gift card. On a regular basis, I am  expected to clean up urine, feces, and vomit.  We don’t have any biohazard disposal kits.  Usually, I work until midnight, and since I can’t afford a car, I walk home – that takes me about an hour.  Sometimes I am able to eat free meals from the soup kitchen, and I’m thankful for that.  I’ve never been offered benefits.  I have never had a supervisor check-in with me, let alone a regular review.  When one of our clients died, there was no mention of it except in written notes used for documenting client behavior.

My job as a non-profit employee in an office: Most of my knowledge is experiential – I’ve only attended one training in the past three years. My hourly pay is $14. My Christmas bonus is more substantial than a gift card, which I appreciate.  Until recently, I spent a lot of time on facebook and sending personal emails – if I leave work, I won’t get paid.  My first review in over 1.5 years was a month ago – I am now expected to take on much more than in the past, but the only way I’ve been compensated is with a title change.  My last raise was 2 years ago.  Every fundraiser I’ve helped put on since I began working at the organization has been more successful than the last.  Much of my time is spent in committee meetings where people with no particular expertise talk about strategies but rarely devise tangible action items.  There is no room for growth – my organization is not interested in employing workers full-time (then they’d have to offer benefits).

So, why don’t I do something about this? Stand up for myself and ask for a raise, or move on? I suppose I feel trapped – stuck in a sector where neither specialization nor generalization have value.  A place where I’d be lucky to make $60,000 annually 15 years from now. But, at least I can pretend that the work I do is somehow making the world a better place.  At least I’m not stuck in a monotonous job doing desk work all day, right?  What I really want is some acknowledgement – someone to say that the nonprofit sector sort of sucks.  Someone to question what’s really working – and what isn’t. Is there actually a societal benefit to me holding jobs that keep me in poverty, when I have a freaking master’s degree?

My plan? Leave the sector…throw aside all the experiential knowledge I’ve gained for a decent, well-paying job with benefits.  Then, maybe I’ll volunteer somewhere and bake cookies every day for the people who work where I donate my time.  Hell, maybe I’ll even donate some money.  It’s sad to say I’m burned out, but it’s scary to know I’m certainly not the only one. No, really…(read this one, too).


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I’m Dreaming of a…

Google Reader for Google Apps?

What?! Isn’t that what you want for Christmas, too? Ok, fine.  I could use a lot of things, but really, I am pretty sick of reading work-related blogs at home or trying to track worthy tips and tricks through draft emails and my google task frame.  I could use one of those other reading tools, but everything else at my work is in Google Apps.  I swear it was forever ago when I found Google Apps Beta with Reader and tried to get my organization to make the switch.  Our site host claimed that beta could cause irreparable damage to our data (what if we lost all those archived emails?!).  I feel like I’ve been pretty darn patient and the new Apps was supposed to be released “this fall”.  Still no word.

If I don’t have Reader, at least I have you, dear reader.  And, as my small gift to you, please enjoy my favorite blogs about the non-profit sector…the ones that I’d actually look at and not just click “mark as read” so I don’t have to see how many unread items I really have (you must know what I’m talking about).

What’s in your reader?


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That Rare and Pleasant Moment

I had one of those rare moments last night where I was mildly dreading something and then was pleasantly surprised.  I love those moments.  And, I especially love them when they have to do with engaging volunteers.

Here I was, walking to a meeting (that we scheduled on a national holiday), thinking – no one is going to show up.  I’ve definitely held meetings where I was the only person there (ok, usually one person showed up, but still), so this wouldn’t be out of the ordinary.  But, see…we’d sort of half-heartedly applied for grant-funding for this project, and we got the grant.  That means if no one shows up, I’m stuck trying to figure out how we spend the money (or reluctantly give it back).

Luckily, I didn’t have to figure any of that out.  Our meeting was scheduled for about an hour – it lasted two.  Usually, I’d say that was a sign of a poorly planned meeting, but we seemed to thrive on brainstorming while still moving toward concrete plans and goals.  When was the last time you worked on an engaged and effective team? I’ll venture to say that it doesn’t happen to most people every day (or even every year, hell). Now, our team has a plan – a good one.  We’ve identified solid partners and tentative goals.  We even have money!!

The real question now is, “What is the key to this success?” I feel like every time I have a blissful team moment, I completely fail to identify what made it work so well.  You can come up with all kinds of reasons – attitudes, timing, expertise, a spirit of collaboration, free pizza, coercion, etc.  And sure, sometimes you need those things to work well together, but I’ve certainly had them before and ended up with a project disaster.

It’s late and I’m tired, so I’ll leave it at that.  But, if anyone knows the silver bullet that makes people come together, take on appropriate roles, treat each other kindly, and effectively reach results…shoot your thoughts over to me!


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Summer Rocks

Well, summer is coming to a close. So long, days where I procrastinate and push off even the simplest tasks for another day (or season).  No more sipping sangria on outdoor porches or helping my roomie pretend to be sick just so we can skip work and lounge at the beach all day. And, I’m going to get back on schedule with this whole blog thing…maybe.

You may think that I’ve put off volunteering over the past month or so as well – I mean, it happens to the best of us, right? Not me, my friend, not me.  In fact, I took advantage of the summer days by going on an extended vacation in Maine’s 100-mile wilderness.  You can get a brief overview of the area in this month’s Maine Magazine, but all you really need to know is that this place is freaking remote.  Of course, I ended up there after K. suggested (in March) that we volunteer with the Maine Appalachian Trail Crew – seemed like a fabulous idea back in the dead of winter to bust our asses doing trail work for a week.

We started off from Portland, driving a couple hours to the MATC’s base camp in Garland, Maine.  Our crew was made of a couple AmeriCorps volunteers (of course), a crew leader, and one other volunteer.  Setting off at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning, our small group headed out in a 15-passenger van reminiscent of my days back in AmeriCorps*NCCC.  The 2.5 hour drive to our site was mostly on dirt roads – I promptly fell asleep to avoid a retched case of car sickness as I tried to preserve some semblance of being bad-ass enough to undertake the upcoming backpack trip with all our gear.  As it turned out, the hike was pretty short (thank goodness).  No time was wasted as we set up camp in the White Cap Mountain Range and headed to work building a stone staircase through the woods. The rest of our week was spent in pretty much this one spot, moving rocks inch by inch to create a beautifully manicured trail.  I learned all kinds of things during our time on the mountain – how to climb trees with slings, set up high-wire rigging to move boulders, and the beauty of  a rock bar.  By the end of the week, I could practically move a half-ton boulder with my pinky.  At least that’s how I remember it.

There is no elevator up here, man.

Now, I should mention that our trip took place on the Appalachian Trail – for those of you who haven’t bothered to read anything by Bill Bryson, you might want to know that the AT is sort of filled with freaks.  There are all these people who’ve been hiking for like half a year and don’t really remember normal social cues.  The AT isn’t really for me – I avoided all the through-hikers like the plague and even began to shirk the casual hikers who constantly asked when we would be replacing the staircase with an elevator.  Despite the weirdos, it was an amazing place, though.

If you bothered to read the Maine Mag article, you’ll note a reference to “eco-tourism” – something Maine has quite the potential for, but does little to promote.  Our state, in fact, could be a perfect place for “eco-voluntourism” (if I can just coin that phrase, right now)… we are VacationLand, after all.  What better than a little economic boost triggered by groups of people interested in giving a little time and money to a good cause in our lovely state?

Oh, beautiful Maine...

I’m not exactly prepared to start the movement myself, but if you’re interested in a few opportunities that involve good sights + making the world a better place, consider looking into the following:

Maine Appalachian Trail Club: Help preserve and protect the Appalachian Trail in Maine

Maine Island Trail Association: Travel Maine’s coast while cleaning up our local islands

Camp Sunshine: Stay in Maine’s Lakes Region while volunteering at this camp for children with terminal illnesses

Common Ground Fair: Camp in style at the Common Ground Fair in Unity – held the 3rd week of September, this fair features organic food and farming activities from across Maine

Know of other great opportunities for volunteering while vacationing in Maine? Share them here – I’d love some ideas for next year.


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You Better Recognize!

Well, I lost my phone in the woods (and therefore, my camera) so the beauty of this post just won’t be the same.  A couple weeks ago was National Volunteer Week.  Many people took time during the week to reflect on the meaning of service or make a difference in their community.  What did I do? I got recognized!  Now, anyone who has ever gone to workshops in volunteer management knows that  recognition is high on the list of best practices for volunteer programs.  You know, as an overworked (and usually underpaid) administrator, you’re supposed to ask your boss to add a couple hundred bucks to the budget for a nice celebration.  Needless to say, it doesn’t always happen.

But, Big Brothers Big Sisters did a pretty good job this time.  Capitalizing on the visibility of National Volunteer Week, they took the time to bring “littles” and “bigs” from across greater Portland together for a pizza party.  Ok, so I know you’re probably thinking “Wow – that’s original.  A pizza party?”  Being as arrogant as I am, I was already preparing a rant on modeling behavior and healthy eating habits…and I didn’t even know about the “stuff-your-face-with-ice cream game”.  But, I was actually surprised.  Most of the pizza toppings were veggies and not only did we get to build our own, but the whole thing was a contest for which big/little combo could make the most original pizza.  (Here is where pictures would have been handy).  K. and I chose to make a face, which then morphed into something resembling a puppy, though maybe it was a bald old man.  We were clearly outdone by the “creepy crawly” pizza – these ladies made centipedes and spiders with their toppings.  Our neighbors did up a “flower garden” pizza with brightly colored hydrangeas made of red and orange bell peppers.  There were also monsters, a pacman, and a “leaning tower of pizza” that stood a few inches high…pretty cool.

Following the pizza thing, we watched some of the younger kids do an ice cream eating contest.  K. wasn’t up for me poking her in the eye with a spoonful of chocolate gooeyness, so we just watched and cheered for the frantic competitors.  We still got a bowl at the end (and we actually got the dessert into our mouths, unlike the contest participants).

So, here is the real question: Did I really need to be recognized? Would I be a better volunteer because of a little free pizza? To be honest, for me, the answer is no.  Sure, it is great to get together with other volunteers, but we just sat awkwardly at the table not knowing what to say.  There were games and word searches, but we weren’t really encouraged to use them.  K. and I had a good time, and the outing was free (probably the best part), so that means something.  But realistically, my motivations for volunteering have little to do with a night like this – I get recognition every time K. and I spend a day together.  That being said, there are obviously volunteers who are truly inspired by celebratory functions (yes, you still need to have the awkward conversation with your boss about increasing your program budget).  Want to know what your motivations for volunteering are?  My roomie (and fellow volunteer junkie) KM. passed on this Volunteerism Questionnaire – it only takes a couple minutes to figure out if make-your-own-pizza is the fastest way to your volunteer spirit.

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Half and Half

Went on another outing with my little sis this week – this time we were volunteering together to help out Big Brothers Big Sisters at the Red Claws game. It was a Wednesday night, but the Portland Expo was still crazy packed with people I swear I never see around town. I mean, nice bright green celtics outfit buddy, but this isn’t Boston. Anyway, people were generally nice and good natured – guess Wednesday isn’t big for the drinking crowd. This unfortunately meant that Wed also isn’t good for the raffle ticket-buying crowd.

We showed up at the game about 45 minutes before it started – we were supposed to be there at least an hour early – but I didn’t feel like pushing K. out the door as she was admiring her new cupcake box. Courtney was there to meet us and quickly put us to work selling 50/50 raffle tickets. They have this crazy automated machine that spits out the tickets – K. was thrilled to man the machine while I collected money and shouted at every passerby. The gig wasn’t too bad, but we were expected to stand at the ticket machine through the fourth quarter (I was thanking god that we had arrived late, since we were there about three hours as it was). Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any of the game and weren’t really offered any break or benefit for our work. K. learned some valuable lessons, though – like tipsy people are more likely to buy tickets…she was pretty excited to take that bit of wisdom back to sixth grade health class (I’m sure her teacher will be really impressed with my role-model skills). K. also felt like this was excellent training for her dream to be a cashier…you know, before she becomes a 4th grade teacher (phew!).

So, all in all, not a bad night. If I had the opportunity to volunteer at a game again, I’d probably do it with a group so we could relieve each other after a couple hours and watch the game- my feet were not too happy about standing on the concrete floor for a few hours. Plus, I don’t need much of an excuse to cheer on our local P-town sports teams from the stands. Go Red Claws! Now I just need to find out who won the 50/50 raffle…

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