Important Lessons I Have Learned While Working in Nonprofits

Evan Malbrough, Founder, The Georgia Youth Poll Worker Project, United States

I started my nonprofit, The Georgia Youth Poll Worker Project, by accident. I was a recent college graduate trying to find my place in the world in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic. It was not until the social upheaval in summer 2020 that I realized the time to build change was now. 

My idea originally started as a simple Instagram account providing information on how students can serve as poll workers in the Metro Atlanta Area; I never imagined it would grow to become a department of the ACLU of Georgia. Through the many twists and turns of building this organization, I’ve become a better leader and have deeply explored the nonprofit world, bringing to light the different politics and challenges within it. 

I hope that these lessons can help you navigate your journey of building an organization and, ultimately, building change. 

Your Consciousness Will Be Challenged  

I pursued public service under the idea that my politics, including my more radical beliefs, would be welcomed. I quickly found out that that would not always be the case. For example, I, as a voting rights organizer, disagree with the trending idea that voting is an end-all be-all solution, that voting can “fix everything.” Before every election, we see both partisan and non-partisan organizations urging communities to take to the ballot box, alluding that centuries of structural racism and brutal inequality can be wiped away with one candidate’s election. This notion often leaves me uneasy and angry, and has also caused me to question whether my passion is helping communities or contributing to pacifying them in a sham of democracy. 

This inner dialogue has influenced my work and belief systems. I decided that even though I would build my base through the cause of voting rights, I would still consider voting as one of many tools used to build a better society and educate myself on other tools, as well. This perspective helps me manage the double consciousness of my passion that pays me, and my radicalism that sustains me. To be a nonprofit is to be a part of the system — even if the goal is to break it. There is nothing wrong with questioning the impact of your work, in fact, you would be doing the world a disservice if you didn’t

Learn to Say No and Walk Away

When working for the public – for the people –  the work is never ending. One of the biggest mistakes I have made was trying to do as much as I could at all times. This toxic behavior came to a head when I was working 40 hours at my full-time job, 20 hours at my part-time job, and 20 to 30 hours at a second weekend part-time job. Some weeks I worked upwards of 90 hours. Even though I was serving the people, I was miserable managing the stress of three different organizational politics. This stress created a constant state of physical, social, and mental exhaustion. 

After a full year of this, I realized that I cannot dedicate every aspect of my life to the movement, even if I wanted to. I realized that with a more sustainable schedule, I could better serve both myself and my organization. The constant pressure of  performing at the highest level stretched me too thin; I was just maintaining. I was trying to look good instead of actually succeeding. I learned to value rest the same way that I value work. I used to feel bad about resting when there was always more work to be done. After utilizing mental health services I was privileged enough to have access to, I developed tools to calm this inner voice. Though I still work a lot, I don’t work nearly as much as I used to, and I feel even more present in the work now. Learning how to balance work gave me what I always wanted: fulfillment. 

Kill Your Nonprofit, If Possible 

I started the Georgia Youth Poll Worker Project as a response to the poll worker shortage caused by COVID-19. After researching the issue more, I learned that this wasn’t a new concept; there had been a poll worker shortage for years without any action, but that it all came to a head during COVID-19. It was with this knowledge that I decided to split the work into two parts: confront the current shortage and stop future shortages. 

With this expanded mindset, I created programs that, if run correctly, could end all future poll workers shortages, making the Georgia Youth Poll Worker Project obsolete. Though issue nuances vary, assess the issue at hand from a systematic lens to add depth to your understanding. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to work in advocacy because the system we lived in would be truly just. This dream society is lofty, but the belief in it pushes us to do what we can. 

Learn How to Manage Politics

While fundraising, you must take into account your donors’ politics. Tension will always exist between what you want to do and who is willing to pay for it. The ability to fund a nonprofit on a large scale is centered in privilege. Donors often support causes that look good to the public but also don’t jeopardize their own privilege. While I’ve fundraised successfully, I also have had issues with donors who do not understand my calls for systematic change. I’ve incorporated elements into my programming that served the short term and numbers based part of organizing, sometimes having to put my systematic approaches on hold in an effort to keep my lights on.

You must keep these discrepancies in mind when navigating the nonprofit space. Many people will support a strong vision, but very few will fund it without some strings attached. Showing discernment in your funders is just as important as who you hire and what work you do.

Though the nonprofit sector has its issues as all industries do, there is still amazing work done every single day by people who truly care. Independent of pay, opportunity, and opposition, communities come together to work towards a collective goal. These lessons are not to discourage you from joining or starting a nonprofit but rather are meant to give you the necessary tools to use while navigating a complicated industry. In organizing, things are never easy and there is never a straight to progress, so on your path, remember these things: be confident, be patient, be strategic, and know you are on the right side of history.

This is a collaboration between GEN-ZiNE and Driving Change. 

Driving Change

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