I recently began volunteering at a local food pantry. Volunteering is something I have participated in off and on over the last several years as my schedule permitted. Since financial resources are limited I thought at least I could give of my time a few Saturdays a month. Personally, volunteering serves a dual purpose least of which is that it allows me to focus on someone else and not so much on my own job hunting problems. But also, as a program officer, it forces me to stay engaged with the community. I am able to see programs funded by a foundation in action and the fruits of so much hard labor. While this particular pantry is not funded by my foundation, I sometimes wonder as I interact with clients: Is that child a recipient of an after-school program our foundation funds? Does his father participate in a job training or ESL program that we fund? I wouldn’t be surprised of course if the answer was “yes.” I realize what I do for the food pantry does not offer the same social cache as serving on a prominent fundraising board that raises six figures may. Picking through produce, unpacking pounds of product and stocking shelves—not much of a conversation starter. But the tangible results of my efforts are immediate and no less valuable. Then it struck me: What if more of us in the foundation world got our hands dirty? What if we spent a little time on the frontlines interacting with the recipients of our foundation’s dollars? I believe we may gain a new appreciation (and dare I say respect) for what a nonprofit—particularly a direct service nonprofit—goes through on a daily basis. It may also help remove that elephant from the room—the power dynamic.
I realize there is a value-added component to chairing a committee or lending your professional expertise to an organization that has certain capacity issues. But couldn’t we go a step further? Instead of fundraising for a literacy organization, why not tutor? Instead of serving on an advisory board of a women’s shelter, how about leading workshops or acting as a mentor for the individual clients? I hear stories from grantees of how frustrating it is when program officers don’t return their phone calls or don’t provide feedback as to why they didn’t receive the funding or simply that they just don’t “get it.” I chafe at the implication and don’t know how to respond. It’s unfortunate that simple respect is lacking. Are we so far removed from the organizations we serve? Aren’t we all in this together?
For those in the foundation world who do participate in a more grass-roots way with nonprofits in your communities, I applaud you. For those who don’t, I ask why? I don’t volunteer for the recognition—that belongs to the nonprofits that operate the programs to address the vital needs of the communities. I do it as a reminder of why I moved into this world in the first place. Perhaps I take this stance because I am new to the field and I have not become jaded and comfortable. Honestly, I hope that never changes.
Paulette Pierre is a Program Officer intern at The Field Foundation of Illinois. She has a graduate certificate in Non-Profit Management and Philanthropy from Loyola University and is currently pursuing her MA in Interdisciplinary Studies at DePaul University.