Why are we here, again? A mental tooklit for surviving capacity building work

By Kate Fridley, Nonprofit Outreach Specialist, Nonprofits Assistance Fund

I was huddled in my cubicle at the Nonprofits Assistance Fund (NAF), reading up on the latest nonprofit news and generally minding my own business, when suddenly I heard a loud "WHOOP" from down the hallway. 

One of my coworkers burst out of her office and slammed her hand down on a small call bell by the filing cabinet, ringing it several times. Other people trickled out into the hallway to cheer and patting each other on the back.

We had just received a grant to establish a financial leadership cohort, an opportunity we'd been coveting that would allow us to train nonprofit leaders in savvy financial practices. It turns out that ringing the bell is a way to acknowledge that achievement – and to let everyone know that we've hit a critical milestone in pursuing our mission.

When you work somewhere like NAF, which provides loans and financial management training to nonprofits, it can be hard to see the impact of your work. We’ll teach someone how to show depreciation on an income statement, sure, but are we delivering ready-made meals directly to Minnesotans living with life-threatening illnesses, like they do at Open Arms? Maybe not, but we are doing work that makes those deliveries a reality.

I encounter similar challenges as a member of MCN's VISTA cohort. My specific project focuses on NAF's ability to work with organizations serving communities of color, which means I'm essentially helping the people, who are helping the people, who are helping the people who I want to help. (It looks really scary when I type it out like that.) 

Capacity-building work takes a certain mindset, which is why I've identified several mental "tools" that have helped me be successful this year (or, as I like to call them on my off days, "coping mechanisms"): Optimism, groundedness and a willingness to celebrate.

In a position like mine it's easy to become jaded by lack of buy-in, scarce resources and bleak prospects for making substantial change. Racial equity in particular is a topic fraught with overwhelming challenges. For example, Minnesota boasts the highest achievement gap in the country, and a recent MSN Money article named us the second-worst state for Black Americans. How can I possibly begin to fix that?

But a can't-do attitude will only hold me back. No cynic ever got anywhere by rationalizing that, give the shortfalls of the human condition, we can't possibly do any better and are therefore loathe to try. I will not apologize for an unjust system because I, a humble twenty-something, have no power to change things anyway. This is why I've identified a need for optimism - which for me means a determination to become an active agent of change.

However, not everyone can be Wonder Woman, which is why I also need groundedness: the ability to realistically assess my own capabilities and limitations.

It took me several months, for example, to realize that many of my struggles this year were due to ignorance of office culture. How can I possibly learn to execute a mail merge on Microsoft Office so I can print labels for the office holiday card, divine the proper etiquette for scheduling a one-on-one meeting, and fight for racial justice, all at the same time? I really need to cut myself some slack.

And on top of a new job, I'm expected to field huge adjustments to my personal life. Never before have I sat down at a cubicle from nine to five, performing tasks that actually affect real live people, and bused home afterward to an apartment whose rent I earned and signed the check for with my own bare hands. Recognizing these "learning opportunities" for what they are has greatly improved my ability to stay patient with myself.

Between the stresses of my work and personal life, the last tool I need is a willingness to celebrate.

One of my supervisors, Janet, told me the story about a client whose organization suffered a period of financial crisis. Countless technical assistance sessions and revised loan applications later, the executive director pulled out a memo pad and wrote down a date: "April 16, 2009."

That was the date on which, because of Janet's dedication and expertise, she and the ED were able to turn the organization around and get it back on its feet.

That piece of memo paper is now framed on the wall of Janet's office. Like the office bell, it's a small but powerful reminder that our long and hard work as a capacity-building organization has its rewards. Acknowledging our successes along the way helps us remind ourselves why we do what we do, even when things seem like a complete flop. 

Being a VISTA hasn't always been easy, but as I pass the six month mark, reflecting on these mental tools has helped me put things in perspective. Maybe one of these days I'll get my own chance to ring the bell for NAF.