I didn’t know we were dating until he tried to kiss me. I had worked there for about five years coordinating programs and teaching basic skills classes. He cared a lot about renewable energy and was hoping to install solar panels on the property he’d purchased with his step-father. At first, he’d asked for connections in the industry because we provided environmental remediation training, and I was on staff. Although I didn’t have any connections, and wasn’t generally knowledgeable of the field, he invited me out to see the building and to get my opinion of the space.

He was on a mission to encourage other property owners to pursue more eco-friendly practices, and he wanted the community to get involved. He was frustrated with the food deserts, the crime, and the general apathy police held for his neighborhood. His family was from El-Salvador originally, but he grew up with his Mexican-American step-father who had immigrated to the states in the late 1980s.

We had never socialized outside of work before, but he was excited about his project and wanted to share. I had planned to meet him at the building, walk around the neighborhood for a bit, and then head home. He called later to say that he wasn’t far from me and could swing by to pick me up. At the property, he showed me everything that had been renovated and what was left to complete. He described the work in technical terms, showed me tools, and gave demonstrations for completing certain steps in the process. Before parting ways, we picked up some tortas and then grabbed sweet bread from the Mexican bakery downstairs.

The next few times we met, he wanted to cheer up his friend who was going through a divorce. The couple had had a new toddler, and his friend was in a state of depression. He’d wanted to cheer him up, so he asked if I could meet up for awhile to keep him company and entertain the guests.

I had never really dated anyone before. I’d never been kissed. I’d never had to consider how I felt about dating interracially because I’d never really dated. I just found myself pulling away from him, being embarrassed that I was pulling away from him, but not having the words to clarify or to apologize.

Programs fail for the same reasons that relationships do.

1. We fail to communicate. It’s not always easy to talk to people. We don’t always trust the people who make important decisions; we don’t always even like them. We don’t always have the resources and time to execute projects the way we’d like. We don’t always agree with the metrics used to evaluate and assess our programs. Sometimes we’re intimidated by the size of the project or the people who manage us. Sometimes we don’t know what our role is or who defines it. Miscommunication is easy, but we have to be intentional so that programs can be effective.

2. We don’t pay attention. For most of my life I’ve worked for nonprofits that rely on state and federal funding. This typically has resulted in job instability and has contributed to staff members’ frustration and stress. At times I’ve been responsible for large projects but haven’t always had sufficient staff to oversee these projects. I work long hours. I miss family functions. I don’t always get enough sleep. I care about doing a good job, but I don’t always feel like I have time to pay attention. I understand that this can and will create problems later, but if there’s more work than time, what’s a girl to do?

3. We don’t acknowledge what’s working well. We don’t acknowledge good people. No matter how many jobs I’ve worked, I’ve always had one co-worker who was the rock of the organization, but who no one in senior leadership fully appreciated. Let’s call her Linda.

Linda usually makes $13 an hour or less. She usually works overtime, but she doesn’t always clock it. When you give her an unreasonable deadline, she’ll miss lunch, dinner, and will work on the weekends (for free) to complete it. She is committed because she’s a principled person, and she knows that the little things matter. When Mike’s grandmother passes away, she brings him flowers. She buys birthday cakes and hosts holiday parties. She has a system for everything. When irate members come to the office, she chooses to crisis manage the situation. She never gets a raise because she only completed high school. She is brilliant. She is absolutely irreplaceable, but draws no attention to herself. She reaps no rewards. When there’s no coffee, people act as if she’s not doing her job, even though it has never been her responsibility to make it.

As a manager, whenever I find Linda’s, I do whatever I can to show them they are appreciated; they are essential; they are irreplaceable. (In dating, I haven’t quite figured this out.)

I’m a “lifer” as they say in the nonprofit world. For better or for worse, I have to be connected to something mission-driven. I don’t want good programs to fail, period. I especially don’t want good programs to fail for trivial reasons. For the benefit of those we serve, we cannot.
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