By Marianne Philbin
Photo: courtesy of Marianne Philbin
I was sitting in the cramped conference room of a nonprofit organization working on a project I cared about with a group of volunteers whose company I enjoyed when the door opened to let in a staff person carrying a stack of papers for our meeting. From down the hall came the unexpected and unmistakable sounds of television news. We all stopped what we were doing.
"Did something happen?" the woman leading the meeting asked. "It’s nothing," said the staff person, who understood immediately that the real question was had there been another national disaster. "It’s just Joe, trying to get the VCR to work." She closed the door. It’s Pavlovian. The instant that ribbon of sound entered the room, a feeling came over me that I’ve felt all too often lately: Why am I here, doing this? Why aren’t I home with my kids? I looked across the table at the only other parent in the room. We exchanged a four-second look that contained our anxiety, our relief, our acknowledgment of the foolishness of our situation and our resignation that this is the way it is. I’m on edge these days. And lately, whenever I’m any distance from home, I find myself thinking ‘why am I here?’— something I haven’t really done since my children were newborns. Then, my time was marked in 15-minute increments, distance in how far away the pacifier was from the screaming child. Normally, the feeling of "should I really be here, instead of there?" subsides as the children grow older, and as the practical realities of work and adult lives make their own demands. But this is not a normal time. Now, with Iraq, al Qaeda, North Korea—shorthand for so much fear and chaos—I find myself returning to the daily weighing of when, if and why. "Distance away" used to mean out of town; now it can simply mean I’m at a meeting downtown and my kids are in school in Lakeview. There is a tendency in times of crisis to pull inward, bolt the doors, shutter the windows. Certainly our priorities come into sharper focus. As a friend who’s dealing with a serious family illness recently said to me, "It’s hard to pretend that I care anymore about the things I don’t care about." But what about the things that we do care about? As a consultant to foundations and nonprofit organizations, I hear stories every day about agencies losing grants and donors, fundraising events tanking, critical programs struggling, new programs put on hold. With communities across the country hit hard by the economic downturn, nonprofit organizations are facing numerous challenges, their resources shrinking at the same time demand for their programs and services is growing. Foundations and civic leaders are looking at how they best can support the charities they care about—and whose work matters more than ever. As individuals, we need to be doing the same thing. As tempting as it is to pull back, it is not the time to turn away from the agencies so important to our communities. Nonprofit organizations, after all, not only address our needs, they define our culture by delivering education, arts programs and organizing us around social issues. Whether they get what they need—and so our communities get what they need—depends on a host of factors, ranging from the quality of the programs to the fundraisers’ skills. But building and sustaining effective nonprofit agencies also depends on individual volunteers, donors and community members. Like many working parents, as much as I love what I do, there’s a part of me that at any given moment, would really rather just be with my family. But because we want our children to inherit a better world, we must continue to do all the things that pull us away—even when we least want to go. Television distractions notwithstanding, by the time my meeting was over, I was glad I had been there, glad to have had a chance to be a part of supporting one small good thing happening in the world. In difficult times, the work we do for the nonprofit organizations we care about can be a personal response to all that’s going on in the world, a source of solace, hope and meaning. On a larger level, sustaining these organizations helps to preserve the values we cherish, and further the civil society we are all trying to build. So, on to the next meeting—— with cell phone close at hand. And if the phone happens to ring, and it happens to be my daughter asking if I know where she put her dollhouse people… Well, I’ll just have to excuse myself and take that call.Marianne Philbin is the mother of two daughters and co-author of "How Effective Nonprofits Work: A Guide for Donors, Board Members and Foundation Officers," which offers practical advice on how to understand, support and sustain nonprofit organizations. Published by the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, the book is available online at www.givinggreaterchicago.org.