Nonprofit. A seemingly sweet, kind, and soft word. People who go into nonprofit work are passive, non-competitive, and idealistic. They are mostly women, they are sweet, and they are soft.
After working at PCCY for a while now, that word creates quite a different imagery for me. I think of strong, diverse people united in a resistance, fueled with refusal of inadequacy, using truths to organize, mobilize, and accomplish.
The people I work with are nothing but fierce. They are passionate, articulate, intelligent, and activism pumps through their veins. The executive director, Donna, is the strongest embodiment of these qualities and despite being slightly intimidated by her, I have extreme respect for her and hope I can one day lead with her confidence and style.
To keep it PG, Donna is not afraid to really cut into someone; she knows government and she knows policy. I sit at a desk in the office adjacent to hers, and it’s strange if I don’t hear her talking on the phone to someone, using whatever language she pleases. Sitting in front of a round table of white, Republican men, Donna commands interest and respect. Not one of those men would have dared to interrupt her.
Donna also knows management. Some days, our modest office in the United Way building sounds more like a Wall Street trading floor than anything else. As soon as news goes off that City Council may not pass a bill that needs to be, Donna lights up the office; “phone calls, phone calls, phone calls!” And she has everyone, from interns to policy coordinators, calling Philly pre-k providers to rally grassroots support.
My immediate supervisor, Shawn, is respectable in her own right. She is very intelligent and experienced, and I feel lucky to have been placed under her wing. It is obvious how passionate Shawn is. She becomes visibly upset when we receive bad news, and overjoyed when we experience a win.
When I think of activism I think of Shawn. She has worked for nonprofits in a diverse group of spaces, including health care, domestic violence, children’s issues, abortion rights, and probably more areas that she has yet to tell me about. She protested the Vietnam War, apartheid, and has fought for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. Shawn embraces democracy, fighting for what she believes is true, and is living her life to the fullest, most American extent. For this, I also have extreme respect for Shawn and believe she is one of the most courageous people I have encountered.
In addition to the admirable people I work with, nonprofit work contains a larger amount of strategy and even manipulation than I ever thought it would. There is a lot of work that goes behind every move, and I see Donna implement strategy that I studied in some of my Wharton classes. It’s all about knowing who your audience is; parents, schools, politicians, businesses, etc. Identifying what their specific wants are is next. Do they want to be perceived in a certain light? Do they want their children recognized? Do they want their school bragged about? Feeding into those wants in order to accomplish one of our own goals is a strategy I have witnessed time and time again. What language are we going to use to communicate with the specific party? How are we going to act around them when we meet with them in person?
I was really taken aback at the level of business strategy and skill that this type of work demands. And I found myself realizing the assumptions I made, rejecting them, and replacing them with the truth.
Nonprofit work is strenuous, it takes the most intelligent, emotionally and intellectually, to be able to accomplish goals and affect change. Contrary to a popular belief held by those not involved in the field, children’s advocacy is not for the light of heart; I witness the fierceness of those around me every day and I feel myself growing into tougher skin.