On Nonprofits, Detroit, and Doing The Hardest Thing

A portion of Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry Mural, featured on the wall of the Detroit Institute of Arts

It seems as though when my classmates and I graduated from The University of Chicago, we were professionally expected to go one of two ways: into research or into investment banking.  The College places a strong emphasis on living the life of the mind. There’s value in dedicating yourself fully to ideas, theories, and (the hardest part of) your practice.

“How many University of Chicago students does it take to change a lightbulb? Shhh… we’re studying in the dark.”

Perhaps I took my college education too seriously because when it came time for me decide which graduate degree I wanted to pursue, I chose the hardest thing. Making a difference is hard. We’ve generally figured out how the economic market works- but market failures like feeding the homeless and freely educating the masses? We need leaders there. We’ve seen individuals beat the odds pursuing the American Dream, making millions on their ideas for their own profit. It’s been done. It’s becoming more commonplace. Those individual dreams aren’t the greatest odds facing us and they never were- the collective odds are greater. I deal with the inner-workings of a sector that many of my undergraduate classmates wouldn’t dream to tackle… And building a career there? No way. “It’s just too hard.”

Nonprofits take up the barren no-mans-land between government reach and the private sector motive. Yes, it’s hard. Generally, there’s limited professional development opportunities, lower wages, and the inconveniences of “asking” for money and not taking profits…. But it’s not as bad as the rep that it gets. Perhaps people focus on common misconceptions of the sector to justify retreating to less-dire social problems like obtaining the highest energy beverage sales (why are so many of our nation’s most talented minds going into things like this?!)

The nonprofit sector is generally both under-respected and fiercely important. It’s worth more than the reputation that we bestow upon it.

Like the city of Detroit, the nonprofit sector needs help battling ruin porn. Ruin porn is what you’re looking at when you see pictures of a mangled, forgotten, crime-ridden city… but the photo ignores the new building next door and the high-achieving school down the street. It’s media bias to create a story and make things look black and white. Don’t go into the nonprofit sector if you’re forward-thinking and goal-oriented. Don’t go to Detroit.

"In the foreground, the disintegrating old Cass Tech High School that is often featured in media reports on Detroit, eclipsing the snazzy new Cass Tech located immediately next door."

Both Detroit and the nonprofit sector get a bad rep. But they are both critical to who we are as a nation and how we’ll move forward. Detroit got some positive press on Sunday during the Super Bowl in the unsuspecting form of a Chrysler commercial. If you’ve been to Detroit, you probably lost your breath for a moment and said something like, “well it’s about time.” If you’ve never been to Detroit, I hope it made you think twice about that lovely, important city.

Aside from being unfairly judged, nonprofit work and the city of Detroit have a lot in common.

  • They are an important part of our history. Henry Ford invented the assembly line, the cornerstone of the industrial revolution that forever changed the way businesses operate and large-scale production takes place. He did it in Detroit. Motown music was born in this city. Our automobiles are still built here. Nonprofits shape our history as well. Thanks to nonprofits, we have universities and museums, research support, and platforms throughout history upon which figures have lobbied for the right to vote and have shared famous dreams.
  • They are critical to our future. A world without nonprofits would be awful. There would be extreme hunger in the United States and a much greater divide between the rich and the poor. We’d be uninformed, uninspired, and disconnected. We’d be overcome by disease (having given up on research and prevention) and there would be few places to go if you do get sick. There would be no great college education. Individual interests could not be supported, and change could not happen. Similarly, Detroit has a rich history and a meaningful story that can inform our future.
  • They foster passion and excitement. Have you ever met someone from Detroit? People from Detroit are passionate about the city. And I don’t just mean that they cheer for the Lions despite the odds. They seem to only have good things to say about the place- and they champion Eminem and Kid Rock like they are heroes. Remember when this article by Mitch Album came out and moved readers in 2009?  Nonprofit employees are passionate, too. We are champions for our causes- and also for the sector.
  • They represent The Hardest Thing. Both the city of Detroit and the nonprofit sector have problems to be solved and present an open opportunity for leaders and great thinkers. They both need educated thought leaders who aren’t afraid to be uncomfortable. Detroit needs young minds to stay in the city and build it up. The nonprofit sector needs to attract young minds and help build up the sector.

I’m not from Detroit. I’m from Chicago. But I think that Detroit is tragic, lovely, strong, and fiercely important. I think the nonprofit sector is the same way.

When I (or you) say, “I work in the nonprofit sector,” and someone says, “Awww. That’s so great and nice! Good for you!” That person is wishing away the sector’s truth: that every day, you work toward something seemingly impossible. Working in the nonprofit sector is noble and serious- and perhaps the hardest thing (business-wise) a person could chose to do.

As a side, I ran my first half marathon this weekend (in my Henry Ford hat) and a girl running in front of me wore a shirt that read, “My sport is your sport’s punishment.” I am honored and thrilled to be working alongside all of you in the nonprofit sector, making a difference and doing the hardest thing. Whether you feed the homeless or work in a museum that constantly strives to educate and inspire communities, our work is rough.

And while I may not have a lot of money in my pocket,  I’d say the pay-off is pretty great, too.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Miscellaneous 7 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

7 Responses to On Nonprofits, Detroit, and Doing The Hardest Thing

  1. Jenny Reed

    Colleen, what an inspiration to wake to this morning, especially as I’m struggling with my own misgivings about the impact I can make as a personnel side note in my small non-profit. As you described it, the world’s agenda seems to include diminishing the ability of non-profits to change the world or, at least, their communities. So often are non-profits looked upon with–well, pity–that those of us who work in the field are apt to take pity on ourselves at times, when there is no such thing as merit raises, retirement benefits, or opportunities to advance. We forget how “noble and serious” this line of work can be, or the realities of our work’s impact on individuals, families, communities and yes, sometimes, the world at large. In many ways, we sacrifice our own professional potential so that others may achieve theirs. And that is a great pay-off.

     
    • colleendilen

      I know a lot of people that wouldn’t find the public service motivation payoff rewarding. I think the fact that you find it rewarding is awesome and I think it means that you yourself are “noble and serious.” Thanks for doing what you do. I know first hand how hard it is to keep going and going in the name of making a large-scale difference. Thanks so much for the comment, Jenny.

       
  2. Susan

    We should always remember that things worth doing are always the hardest to get done. Thank you for this article.

     
    • colleendilen

      That is a great line (and so very true, I think)! Thanks, Susan.

       
  3. Rhonda Newton

    Having gone to an undergrad college where academia, medical/law school, or a career in nonprofits were the norm (there was recently an alumni discussion about the need to have undergrads realize that MBAs were actually an option) – I struggle to reconcile that my career in nonprofits is not radically changing the world. I have come to accept that my role is to change the world one person at a time – most often, through professional development to help other people in the nonprofit and public sectors do their jobs better, so they can change the world. It’s what I’m good at, but I end up wondering if I’m doing enough, like Jenny. Nonprofit guilt?

     
    • colleendilen

      I hear you, Rhonda… it’s rough. It’s hard to measure direct, individual impact and to battle professional burn out without it. I think that’s one of the “hardest parts” of the sector. It seems, though, that changing the world one person at a time is the best way to do it. To borrow a lesson from the social media revolution, there’s incredible power in networks and the ripple effect. And it sounds like your job is to create ripples.

       
  4. Mo

    Thanks, Colleen, for the positive words toward both my home town (though I am an ex-pat) and my profession–I appreciate the comparison and, as always, your insight and optimism.

     

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