Tuesday, January 21, 2020

NonProfit Work and Us

Alison Koch shared these thoughts originally as part of Museum Computer Network's 2019 Ignite. As I sat in an aerie above the stage, I DM'd her to ask her to share her remarks here. They were that true and that powerful. I hope you enjoy them. 

Written by Alison Koch

I think us non-profit folks have a particularly complicated relationship with work.

Mission statements can quickly come to justify all sorts of bad habits and behavior, both as perpetrated upon us by leadership and peers, as well as the ways we often end up treating ourselves. I mean, we’re not not curing cancer. Everything feels like it’s on fire, sometimes because the rainforest actually is!

So, on the one hand, we have a meaningful north star – a noble mission – but on the other hand, we are struggling with a unique existential crisis, limited compensation, and sky-high expectations.

How might we re-imagine the future of mission-based work?

First, I think that museums need to think about their staff as a stakeholder group worthy of just as much time, attention, energy, and evaluation as visitors or donors.

What would it look like if we investigated staff turnover with as much rigor as we courted lapsed donors and members? We love a comment card from a visitor, but how can we gather better, honest feedback from staff early and often before they quit or leave the sector? And how do you act on that information to save the relationship? An exit interview is too late.

We also know we can’t just sit around and wait for a magical top-down change. How can we as individuals take steps to make this meaningful work feel like a sustainable choice in the long-run?

First, please stop beating yourself up. Don’t let the mission be a weapon you wield against yourself. You are doing enough, I promise.

You don’t have to start at “Yes”. Get better at saying “No.” Or “Okay, but I need until June.” If you are forced to stretch or sprint unsustainably, speak up. Document your concern. Explain. Advocate. Don’t just drink your coffee quietly while the room burns down, because you are also flammable.

What small thing can you normalize? What big thing can you break and rebuild? With whatever power you have, do something that makes other people stop and say, “Wait, we can do that?” Every inch we can move in the right direction course-corrects leadership and sets an example for our peers. It’s no small feat.

I’m asking you to stay. We need you. You are too important not to be a part of the future of our work. If we all leave, there’s no one to show us how to do it differently.

Alison Koch is a digital storyteller, technical product manager, design thinker, dog mama, and perpetual American Sign Language student, currently serving as the inaugural Digital Content Producer and strategist at Playwrights Horizons theater in New York City.

First Image credit: Paru Ramesh

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