Spend any time involved in the world of nonprofits and you know a deadline's looming. June 30th marks the end of the fiscal year for many nonprofit organizations. And this year's a particular nail biter, given what my eldest son refers to as "these tough economic times." Between Wall Street–and for some institutions, Madoff–layoffs in large numbers, and the general pinched budgets all over, many people who have had more "extra" have less, or little "extra" have even less, and granting institutions have less, and well, you get the picture. In these times, for nonprofits, less is definitely not more.
This truth–I'm one of the many who has less to give than in previous years–along with completing my board service for the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art this past month, after serving as a trustee since the spark of a great idea phase (the museum opened its doors in November, 2002)–has me thinking about service. For the first time in about twenty years, save for being a member of one advisory board–another institution in its idea stage, the Commonwealth Center for Change–I am not currently a trustee of a nonprofit institution.
I grew up in a very philanthropic family. From early on–as in, I never knew otherwise–my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, participated in the nonprofit world. They not only gave money (I'm not sure how aware of that I was), they gave, generously, their time. It's not like I can pinpoint a memory of when discussions turned to schools, helping organizations like hospitals and literacy projects, health care and housing assistance programs, legal aid and legal rights, arts groups, hotlines for women… those kinds of things, far as I knew, just were. Not only did they always exist, they were important for the good they provided, and for the fact that they mattered so much to my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. I never posed the question to myself about whether I'd participate in the world around me, I always, always did. From going in for an hour before school (because that's when my dad, the principal, arrived!) to help with the infants at my elementary school's Headstart classrooms from third through sixth grades to organizing blood drives during high school to editing the preschool newsletter this year when I had no children in attendance at fabulous Sunnyside Child Care Center, I guess I've never not been a volunteer. I have long believed this was amongst the biggest gifts–and the best values–passed on by my family.
Although I was through-and-through a volunteer, two aspects of service–the kind that felt very adult–came as surprises to me. Sure, I gave money to things I cared about starting early. My high school, Germantown Friends, like many established independent schools, has certain giving mechanisms in place, so that my first appeal letter (as opposed to the ones that had come for the six years I attended the school to my parents) arrived in the mail the morning of my high school graduation. But I do remember distinctly the first time someone (Nancy Sherman, then in the development–these days, it's called Institutional Advancement–office at Hampshire College) asked me for a major gift. Before that moment, it hadn't really dawned on me that I could do that. I did, though, and I felt great about it (and a little bit embarrassed, too). I firmly believe that fundraising is truly about offering a person the opportunity to help fuel important work. And to be invited to make something fantastic happen is, itself, a gift. The second "adult" development came in the form of my first "ask" to serve on a board. My friend, Andrea Ayvazian now minister at the Haydenville Congregational Church, invited me onto the board of The Learning Tree in Springfield, a program that helped young African American men earn their GED's (high school equivalency tests) and mentor them toward college. Anyone who has ever met Andrea Ayvazian–a woman whose list of former professions is long and luminous–can tell you that she's a very persuasive person. She was able to convince me that I was old enough and capable enough to be of use as a board member (I still remember her saying that I was a "gem" no one had picked up upon, how flattering was that?) and more so, that as a reproductive rights activist whose focus had been women's health for years, I really would feel compelled to serve an organization that focused upon young men. Think about it for a moment: staggering incarceration rate, absentee fathers, appallingly high mortality rate for young black men… well, it's a no-brainer that education provides the only route out for an unconscionable cycle of violence and poverty that devastates an entire community, not just its men. Arthur Serota, a civil rights lawyer intent upon breaking this cycle, gave his all to the young men he worked with in Springfield (now, he continues good work in South Africa). My board service with the Learning Tree was, at times, all consuming, and included everything from organizing house parties and writing fundraising appeals and grants to editing college application essays and taking in a student in crisis (and his girlfriend) for a month. What's more, that association brought the James Baldwin Scholars Program at Hampshire College into existence (the program originated with Learning Tree students).
While I can say that I've helped some institutions I respect hugely, from serving as an original member of the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts to eight years as a trustee for Hampshire College or a few years as board member for the Enchanted Circle Theater, what is most true about this kind of volunteer work is that I have garnered more than I've given each and every time. Here's just some of what I've learned: group dynamics skills, greater understanding about how organizations function best, donor outreach, the importance of thanking people, how to brainstorm with purpose, how to craft a mission statement, and how to bring ideas to realization (hint, you cannot do that alone). One organization's board–the lovely, historic, and quirky Cummington Community of the Arts–folded under the watch of a devoted board voted in to be responsible stewards (folding represented responsible stewardship, in that case). Not all moments in an organization's life are easy or joyful or comfortable. Volunteering with responsibility attached always entails some long, tiring days and a certain sense of inheriting headaches you didn't mean to solicit. Part and parcel with the work, though, is the sense of contributing one's self–ideas, spirit, enthusiasm, skills–to something valuable to the community, as close as a neighborhood or much farther reaching. That is an incredible gift, to be welcomed as a participant in making the world a better place.
My husband just completed his eight-year term on Hampshire College's Board of Trustees. He and I made an agreement–sealed with a pinky swear–to take some time before jumping onto new boards. My pinky swear was half-hearted, though. I both believe in service and love it. At the same time, I think Hosea's right in advocating that we take a pause from that kind of civic commitment. With four kids and work heating up for us both, and less money for childcare to buffer one another's absences (and frankly, less money to give away), we can take some time to do what we're doing and to make sure our next trustee gigs feel like ones we deeply want to take on and are confident too, that we can make a difference to the organization. Besides, there are many ways to pitch in. Even as a former trustee, I make some annual fund asks (I do so for my high school, Germantown Friends, as a class agent, as well). Momentum is building for my kids' elementary school's Green Team, which we got off the ground this past year. Kidbits, the Sunnyside newsletter and the Smith College Campus School's newsletter, the Looking Glass, tell good stories to current, former and prospective parents. I don't feel in any danger of losing sight of June 30th any time soon.