If you’re feeling hopeless of late, remember that your work matters and you do too

[Image description: A grayish raccoon with white eyebrows, peeking out from a log or wooden beam or something. They look serious, with dark, piercing eyes that peer into one’s soul. Kind of cute though. Look at that one little paw! Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone, the last few weeks have been rough. I was glad to end it with the #NonprofitHaiku contest to bring some levity and humor. A colleague on Twitter, though, pointed out the seriousness of all the challenges we face beneath the lightheartedness:

“It’s a cute joke that there are raccoons in our supply closet. It’s hilarious. […] The conditions we work in, the demoralizing chaos and the barriers to success is literally killing people.”

In my travels around the country, and in the various nonprofit support groups I lurk in on, I hear of so many heartbreaking situations that colleagues are facing. The ED not sure if they’ll be able to run payroll next cycle. The program director unable to find enough funding to serve all the clients who need help. The staff paid so little they qualify for services. A colleague with dental pain and no dental insurance. A colleague who hasn’t had a vacation in three years. Another colleague whose reputation is being slandered by a toxic former professional partner. An organization attacked on social media by racists.

This work is so difficult sometimes, and I am constantly inspired but also saddenedby what so many of us are sacrificing to do it. I talked to one colleaguewho was ecstatic to have received a grant of $25,000. “Awesome,” I said, “did you build into the budget to use some of that money to pay yourself? I know you are working a whole bunch of hours unpaid.” She looked sheepish, and replied,“Well, I’m going to pay other staff first, but I’m working on eventually getting myself paid too.”

Besides the pervasive injustice happening all over the world to innocent people, the endless cycles of hate and violence, the rampant racism/sexism/ableism/ageism/homophobia/transphobia/xenophobia/Islamomophia/classism we are trying to fight, many of us must contend with office mice problems, lack of heat in winter, secondary trauma, and who the hell knows how any of us are going to be able to afford to retire.

This last Friday, it hit me all at once, the sense of hopelessness, of futility, of the constant struggle for resources, the constant need to justify our work, the doubting of good intentions, the endless challenges in trying to make the world better. I thought of all my colleagues across the sector facing so much. Eating an entire bar of dark chocolate didn’t help. I went on to the NAF Facebook page with a plea for folks to “Tell me one thing that makes you happy.” Within a few hours, nearly 500 comments came back. I sat in my car and read them. Thank you to everyone who posted pictures of their pets, told stories of their kids, put up a funny meme, and highlighted the small or big things that add joy to their lives. You cheered me up considerably.

If you’ve been dealing with so much lately, or for years, and you’re feeling hopeless, I want you to know a few things. First, you are not alone. It might be great if you were, but you’re not. The challenges we face—in terms of resources, human dynamics, societal injustice, and existential pains—are pervasive. If you are affected by cashflow issues, or the Wheel of Disillusionment, or a toxic co-worker, or a micromanaging board, you can be sure that thousands of others are too. That also means, though, that thousands of people have successfully gotten past these challenges, and you will too.

Second, if you feel like crap, it means you care. It sounds counter-intuitive, but if you are doubting yourself, if you are internalizing the negativity around you, if you are kept awake at night worrying, it is an indication that you are doing something right. I’m going to call it the Personal Integrity Paradox, and it’s similar to the Dunning-Kruger Effect: Basically, if you have integrity, you will always question whether you have integrity. Think about it: Good parents always think they’re bad parents, while bad parents probably think they’re awesome. Same goes for good teachers, good leaders, etc. Sure, there needs to be balance, but overall, good people always doubt their goodness, while those who suck always think they’re great.

Third, and most importantly, remember that your work matters, that it is making a difference, though you may not know it now or ever. I always say that our work is like air: nobody appreciates air until it is gone. Because of its nature, even we who do this work often do not see our impact. What you do helps people who may not have the language or the means to ever say thank you. It may take years before you see the full the results of your actions, if you ever do.

Four years ago I ran into a student working as a gate agent of an international airline. He had been a participant in an afterschool program I coordinated for students who had just arrived to the US. He recognized me and came over to thank me for helping him all those years ago. It was sweet and it made all those nights I stayed up freaking out about the program and the organization worth it.

Sometimes the work we do feels like throwing a stone into a lake at night. People may not see us doing it, and it makes ripples that we are not able to see. For my own part, I don’t know the names of any of the nonprofits that helped my family when we first arrived to the US. They brought us food, warm clothing, and pots and pans and helped my parents find jobs. And I can’t thank all those folks who worked at these nonprofits; I can’t tell them that the ripples they created helped restored a sense of community my family and I thought we would never feel again, that their actions inspired me to also go into this line of work.

With so many things facing all of us, it is easy to fall into despair, to think about giving up, maybe to quit the sector and open a stall at the local farmer’s market or something (though I hear that’s tough too!) If you’re feeling that way of late, know you are not alone, and recognize that the more you care about the world, the more painful your work will be sometimes.

But always remember that you make a difference, that your actions have ripple effects far beyond what you may ever be able to see or know. As Gandhi says:

“It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.” 

When it is so tempting to walk away, and sometimes that’s for the best, thank you for always continuing to do something  to make the world better.

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