The grass is greener where you water it

By Amalia Centurion, Emerging Nonprofit Specialist, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits

Me in my capacity-building swivel chair

Me in my capacity-building swivel chair

I once thought that cubicle life was for extreme introverts who didn’t really know or want to help people.  However, now that I’ve dipped my toes in the water I realize that there’s some very important work going on in those capacity-building swivel chairs.

You see, I am a pretty relational person who enjoys working directly with the people I’m serving and seeing the impact that I’m having on others’ lives.  Before starting my year of service I had only worked in direct services and absolutely loved it!  Choosing to try something different was a toss-up, because I had no idea what to expect.  I knew that my VISTA position would be focusing on creating a more equitable nonprofit sector and I was excited to learn.

And learn I did…For the first five months of my program I focused my energy on co-creating a nonprofit management training series for nonprofit leaders of color.  Like any program, there were hurdles to jump. Here are two that stand out in particular:

Funding: Funding programs is a peculiar process, with its own words, actions and culture. Relationships between the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors are strategically formed and they are constantly shifting.  Working on creating this program at MCN has helped me begin to understand the nuances of building and sustaining relationships with funders.  From this experience one of my main takeaways is that funders are looking for programs that will make lasting impact on the communities served.  Therefore, having a brand new budding idea is often not as easy to sell as an established program.  Nevertheless, during the first few months I attended grant writing 101 and began writing a grant.   Increasing the funding for our program, which was at $0.00, was crucial for the success of my VISTA year.

Participant Engagement: The second important question was, how do we engage with our participants? At the very first VISTA lunch we had a guest speaker who spoke about community engagement.  She is a strong Somali woman who runs a community-based nonprofit serving her community.  As we sat and listened to her speak she explained to us that if there are programs or projects that are being done for her community, they do not work unless community members are actively involved from the beginning.  She described it as “being the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae that was made for them without them”.  This is exactly what we wanted to avoid and we needed to work on creating a space where all members felt like their voices were heard from the get-go.

Being Positive, Patient, and Adaptive

As the first five months winded down it seemed like the program wasn’t going to get off the ground and unfortunately that was the case.  Our partnership ended and we were back at ground zero. No program. No plan. No project for the VISTA.

Positivity and patience were key to getting through this challenge. Even though there wasn’t a project or a program I was thankfully still employed. This period of time lacked clarity and direction. I stumbled in the dark trying to find a purpose at MCN.  Of course I still had inclusion and engagement meetings to attend and the occasional email or phone call to respond to, but the overarching purpose of why I was at MCN wasn’t visible.

I was frustrated and uncomfortable with the ambiguity and needed to make a change. So, one day I decided to make a list of the things I had learned and appreciated about my year-to-date. Some of the highlights include:

  • I’ve learned a lot about nonprofit management – including program planning, grant writing, strategic planning, governance, fundraising, and budgeting.
  • I’ve learned strategies for creating organizational change.
  • I’ve learned how to step up and be an advocate for equity issues in the workplace.
  • I’ve appreciated the wealth of knowledge that my co-workers & friends have shared with me
  • I’ve appreciated the time I’ve been able to spend thinking about my future professional and personal goals.

After writing the list of 25+ things I was able to remind myself of all I had accomplished.  All though there wasn’t a program to run, MCN as an organization had grown from this experience.  Even more so, I had grown from this experience.  My job description changed, but the knowledge stays with me.  I have honestly been able to apply it to what I am currently working on, which is an organization-wide program evaluation.  

So, not all has been lost.  We received $20,000 from one of the grants I wrote in the first half of my year and we are working on engaging members in most of the steps that we are taking for the program evaluation.  Cubicleland is definitely not as bad as I envisioned.  Sitting in those swivel chairs are wonderful people who enjoy the work that they do and occasionally sing songs with their headphones in.  

Bottom line is that no matter where you work or what you are doing, if you water and nurture your experiences there can always be at least some positive points to them.  As a friend once said, the grass is greener where you water it.