Look Back in Anger. Or just vague annoyance.

By - Rashid Darden On Jan 04, 2014

Look Back in Anger. Or just vague annoyance.

It’s been over a year since I left my last job in the nonprofit sector in order to become a full-time novelist. Although my entire life has changed and many sacrifices to my lifestyle were made, I remain happy with my decision to become the best writer I can be. As Joe Girard has said “the elevator to success is out of order. You’ll have to use the stairs…one step at a time.”

That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the nonprofit sector. I do. I keep up with the trends. Somewhere in my heart, I hope that the sector at large has caught up with where I thought it should be by now. Sadly, it hasn’t.

The same nonprofits which were struggling five years ago are still struggling. The grant money shrinks, yet somehow they are still holding on. It makes me angry–or perhaps just annoyed–that these organizations won’t just call it quits and make way for those organizations who can actually do the work. That goes for food banks, after school programs, shelters, you name it. Major cities are saturated with medium-sized nonprofits that are barely getting by.

It’s not that I am some cruel-hearted nonprofit killer. It’s that many are working under an outdated, illogical model based on ego rather than service. A nonprofit usually starts like this:

• The visionary founder has a service-based idea
• The visionary founder recruits his friends and family to be the board of directors
• The board humors the founder
• All of a sudden, it’s a year later and the board is like OMG this thing really has legs
• The earnest founder makes modest successes but doesn’t engage his/her board for funding because he’s “too close” to them and doesn’t want to make things awkward
• A Development Director is finally hired and is given the job of three people (Fundraiser, Communications Director, Secretary) while given the salary of half a person
• The founder gets burned out, the board gets burned out, next thing you know it’s ten years later and nobody’s happy to be there.

That annoys me. It’s the same story in many places.

This morning, I saw a job announcement for a seemingly worthy nonprofit organization. It was for a Director of Development, a job I’ve had before and wouldn’t mind returning to if the circumstances were right (including two work-from home days a week and an assistant).

Well, true to form, this job was really three jobs in one. First red flag. Second red flag was that the “assistant” was an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer. No offense to said volunteers, but no. Can’t do it. I need someone who knows they want my job some day and is being compensated for it. The quality is just different that way.

But the biggest red flag? This organization serves people of color but had no people of color on the senior staff. All of the people of color were on the program staff.

I can’t work someplace that doesn’t already value diversity in leadership. My city is majority black. The majority of beneficiaries of service in this city are black. An all-white senior staff is deeply troubling to me and I won’t work someplace where I’d have to be the first. I’ve been on that trip before. Got the t-shirt. Hated it.

So I look back in annoyance this holiday season, at a nonprofit sector filled with founders and visionaries, overworked and underpaid development directors, and clients who receive services but don’t see people who look like them on their charity’s website.

I’m not angry. I’m not sad. I just wonder how I made it in the sector for as long as I did.

My wish for the nonprofit sector moving forward is pretty simple: that those organizations on 501(c)(3) death row euthanize themselves and give their remaining assets and talent to organizations who do the job better; for those orgs that can survive to unite and form mentoring programs for rising nonprofit leaders of color; and for every “founder” of an organization to make career goals and secession plans for themselves so they may move on within three years. Even the best nonprofit leader should have goals bigger than where he/she currently sits.

Take heed, colleagues. Change the nonprofit sector while you still have the power to do so, lest outside forces change it for you.

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