This is Lesson 3 in the This is for my Corporates Series.
If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series* is for you!
Lesson 3: Get your ass to the field
The actual work that non-profits do on the ground is about as different from their commercials as the size and color of the close up Big Mac you see on the McDonald’s commercials vs. what you actually get when you eat there, but in a different way. (Not that I ever eat there, just trying to make a point).
Those 30 second bits you see on TV are, get this, ADVERTISEMENTS designed to create an emotional response so that people will donate money. So don’t believe them, even if you are in charge of making them. (And I get into that in another post)
Go to the ground to understand reality. Leave your tidy office full of giant glossy posters of beneficiaries, and ethnic touches from around the world, and hushed tones of people answering donor calls and go see the actual work on the ground. It’s like breaking out of a stifled photograph and walking into a complex and layered 3-D movie. Like going from Cliff Notes to the depth and beautiful prose of a good novel.
You need to do that to have any kind of nuanced understanding of how the pieces of this thing we call “development” or “humanitarian aid” fit together. You’ll see things that amaze you. You’ll discover a respect for people that you never had. If your organization is any good, you’ll see that the actual work being done is way more complex than what the commercials tell you and it will take you awhile to process that. (Note: I am not saying good organizations should have stupid commercials, but currently stupid commercials are the norm in the world of non-profit work.) You’ll see things that piss you off, internally in your non-profit and externally in the community. And if you are sharp, observant, chill and open to listening, you will better understand why those things happen.
I don’t know about you, but if I were going to manage something, I’d sure as hell want to know what I’m managing. And if I were going to solve problems, I’d want to know what the roots of those problems are, and what’s been tried in the past to resolve them, and if the attempted solutions didn’t work, I’d want to discover why. Hint: It’s probably not because everyone is stupid and incompetent (though some people definitely are… the trick is knowing who is and who isn’t). It’s probably because the problem is complex. Or because people are stuck thinking about it in an old way. Or because power dynamics don’t allow the problem to be addressed. Or because of the multiple pressures put onto people from all sides. Or due to inherent contradictions in the system. Or any one of a million other things.
The quality of your work, and the leadership and support you can give to the rest of the organization will improve exponentially after you go to the field. So do it. As soon as possible. Please. It’s hard to take you seriously until you have.
Get the bigger boss to authorize you to really work on something in the field, to work with a team to really get something implemented. I knew a guy once who became a general manager at a hotel. As part of his training, he had to work a week or 2 in each of the departments. He did laundry. He did restaurant and room service. He worked the front desk. Something like that would help you get a sense of things.
Spend some time there, on the ground. But don’t go to the field in a bubble. Don’t stay in the office. Don’t do short day visits to see a ton of showcase projects and children dancing in traditional costumes. Don’t let the local office do that to you. Spend time in communities too.
And while you are there, don’t feel sorry for people. Nobody needs your pity, it just gets in the way of things. Most people probably don’t feel sorry for themselves, so why should you? They’re getting by just like everyone is. So respect people and their dignity. You and your agency are just one small part of their lives except in really extreme cases.
And don’t be surprised if you arrive to a health center or a community and there are 500 people there to welcome you. That is normal. That is what people do. Don’t be blinded or sidetracked by the pomp and ceremony. They do it for everyone who visits. You’re not special, and it has nothing to do with the quality of our programs or the quality of your work.
Be open. Learn. Observe. Ask. Share meals in the community and at the office. Stick around long enough so that you are not the center of attention all the time. Sit on the ground if everyone else is. Stop taking pictures and just experience things. Take a bucket bath. Sleep in a hammock. Ride public transportation or in the back of a pick-up truck. Eat street food. Share an office and a computer. Figure out how to meet your deadline when there’s a 24-hour power cut or when it takes 6 days for you to get someone’s signature on something. Go to someone’s house for dinner. Shift the focus to the real core. To people. Don’t get frustrated that things aren’t moving at your pace. Understand that your pace isn’t the pace of most of the rest of the world and deal with it. Learn from people you work with. See what the work is all about, spend time listening.
And don’t ever say things like “Well, why don’t you just…?” Yep, and why don’t you just tell the Tea Party the truth about Obama’s birthplace. Or just provide more resources to urban public schools that are under-performing. Or just get people to eat healthy and start exercising. Or just bring the troops home.
The world of non-profits is a funky place. It’s not like where you come from. In order to do your job well, you need to understand it. Don’t barge in and drop your corporate solutions on everyone. Organizational culture is hard core at non-profits. And that will frustrate you immensely. It frustrates us too. But sometimes there are real reasons we don’t do things how you’d imagine we should. And you need to understand things in order to sort the bullshit from the reality.
So spend at least 6 months to a year listening, experiencing, and learning, because it will take you at least that long to even begin understanding. Then you’ll be able to talk and listen to people in a genuine way from the right place, from the stomach, from the heart. When you know what you are talking about, and people trust you, THEN when you ask them questions about why they don’t do this or that, they may give you a real answer instead of one designed to please you or one that avoids outing their colleagues. Blend your business savvy with your gut and your heart and you’ll be a huge asset to everyone, in the non-profit sector… or even back in the corporate world.
More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates Series:
Lesson 1: Watch your language
Lesson 4: People are not props
Lesson 6: Win-win or forced marriage?
Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout
*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings (often with some spirits that loosen the tongue). In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over the span of a 15 year period. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.