A Non-Profitable Experience

As boomers age, if we’re lucky, we gain more time for volunteer work, to contribute to the community, a non-profit, or to an affinity group. What I want to know is – is volunteering as aggravating for everyone else as it is for me?

For some, this might involve working in a homeless shelter or tutoring at a local elementary school. For me, over the last 20 years, it has followed a remarkably similar path – joining a group, getting deeply involved, and then becoming overwhelmed in frustration. Is it me? Is it them? Or both?

The two entities I’ve first joined and then departed couldn’t be more different. One was my college fraternity, Kappa Sigma, founded at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1869 and as traditional as they come. The second was the local congregation of the Unitarian-Universalist church, which traces its roots in America even further back, to the American Revolution. For a religious institution, it’s as liberal as they come.

I started as an alumni volunteer for Kappa Sigma, back in the early 80s. Surrounded in adulthood by the friends I’d made at the Stanford chapter, I wanted to instill upon the undergraduates that brotherhood extended beyond graduation. I eventually spent almost a decade in a variety of positions, first serving my own local chapter and then the regional district in Northern California.

In time, I began to wonder how much of a difference I was really making. 

  • When I shifted my focus from the chapter to the district, on the wider district work, no other alumnus stepped up to serve the local chapter. Many of the projects I’d overseen, though always complimented, almost immediately languished.  
  • When I began to focus on the district undergraduates, I realized almost immediately that what the national organization was saying about drinking and hazing was falling on deaf ears. One weekend, I drove several hours to help a chapter celebrate its tenth anniversary, leaving my (newly betrothed) wife at home to stay at a hotel overnight. I was awakened at midnight by drunken fraternity revelers in the parking lot. When I yelled at them to shut up, they responded with expletives.  
  • Nor was the fraternity’s national organization a paragon. At the last biennial conference I attended, held in Phoenix, the conference committee decided, as a cost-cutting measure, to eliminate breakfast for the undergraduates. They could afford, however, to have the Arizona Cardinal cheerleaders entertain us one afternoon.  

I withdrew and began searching for another way to contribute.

Not long after that, I joined my church. I had mistakenly thought that all churches were fundamentalist, and so was delighted to find one that welcomed, as the minister said each week, people of all ages, races, religious beliefs, genders, and sexual orientation. I became just as involved as I had with the fraternity. At one time or another, I served in or on at least a dozen capabilities or committees. It was a small congregation, just about 140 people, and one that supposedly wanted to grow. It never did. 

  • We had a highly conscientious treasurer – after a series of not-so-conscientious ones – who strived to bring some semblance of order to our finances, based on the recommendations of an outside auditor and the requirements of the IRS. She was criticized as a Nazi.  
  • When the Board of Trustees implemented rules and restrictions in the hopes of creating an administrative structure that would serve a larger group, people complained because of how it affected them personally, without considering the greater intent. The decisions were always rescinded.  
  • We were constricted in our growth because we did not own our facility, which limited the kinds of events we could host and signs we could post. We had a six-figure fund for such a purchase, but the congregation voted to rescind the conservative cash-vs.-stock proportions originally in place. Not long after the finance committee moved a big chunk of the cash was moved into stocks, the market tanked. I was one of four people who’d voted against this plan.  
  • To supplement the land fund, I launched a capital campaign. In retrospect, it was foolhardy to start such a campaign in the middle of a recession, and it was not successful. But what pained me most is that a handful of members, people whom I considered to be the pillars of the congregation, neither pledged to the campaign nor inserted a bequest in their wills for that purpose.

 All those, and other frustrations, finally got the better of me, and I left.

They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But why is it seemingly so difficult to have a profitable experience at a non-profit?

Is it them? Is it me? It took me a while to finally figure it out. It’s both. What my completely dissimilar fraternity and church have in common are people: fallible, foolish, full of good intentions and sometimes falling short. Why did this frustrate me so? Despite the name of this blog, I’m not a complete misanthrope.

I think it’s because circumstances in the publishing industry have led me to be self-employed. I’m not out there every day in the corporate world where fallible, foolish people reign. Most of my clients I’ve known for years; I have become accustomed to their foibles (also, they pay me; the non-profits don’t). If they really aggravate me, I fire them.

As I face the prospect of retirement, and having even more time to volunteer, I bemoan my options. I don’t want to go into another situation, all wide-eyed, optimistic, and altruistic, and stumble out two or ten years later similarly disillusioned. But I’m not convinced I can give up being a partial misanthrope either.


About middleagecranky

The Middle-Age Cranky blog is written by baby boomer Howard Baldwin, who finds the world, while occasionally wondrous, increasingly aggravating.
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14 Responses to A Non-Profitable Experience

  1. SR Newman says:

    It’s time for you to found —
    “The Howard Baldwin Task Force For Positive Change, Compassion, and Enlightenment.”
    Members: 1
    Meeting Place: Empty table at Starbucks
    Funding Provided by: The Bank of H&M
    Projects: Whatever you see needs doing that one focussed retiree can do.
    Time Frame for Long-Range Plans: ‘Bout a day.
    Awards? No
    Rewards? Yes
    Now, go!

  2. Miles says:

    I feel and have experienced the same, and at the church in particular. I liken trying to improve that church to dragging a cruise-sized boat anchor across the desert to a place that doesn’t exist unless you just walk away. I find myself missing people who enjoy forward movement, or clear communication, or common sense, or getting things done right. That, plus the aggravation, I don’t need.

    Years ago, I witnessed one coworker helping another coworker, but being constantly and needlessly corrected or told that it wasn’t “right”. The eventual response: “Fine: you do it” and the helpful coworker walked away to things more important than providing help to someone in exchange for aggravation. Repeat this a few times, and I soon realize how important such an act is. I find this as important as your own saying “‘No’ is a complete sentence.”. “Yes, I do want to help, but I don’t need the aggravation I get from helping you” is an important concept for volunteers … and I wonder how many votes-by-feet it will take for the message to get across, if at all possible.

  3. lois stearns says:

    Please don’t give up trying to do good deeds until you try your local “Meals on Wheels” or some local animal charity. There is much need for good to be done in this world that is going to hell in a handbasket.

    The impoverished elders and needy abandoned animals need you and I believe these organizations are the least tainted.

    • Thanks for the encouraging words, Lois. But I didn’t even touch on my years doing feral cat rescue. That story would require even more space! I’m thinking maybe … maybe … something with adult literacy.

  4. Dave Flack says:

    Yes, non-profits are all frustrating. Just had a very small project rejected by an NPO with liquid assets of nearly half a million dollars. Thought about quitting. Staying to fight.
    “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail”. Ralph Waldo Emerson
    Whoever receives your talents and dedication in the future will be truly fortunate.

  5. Ruth says:

    Adult literacy is a good one (usually not too ‘political’), I have also found that being a foster ‘parent’ to an animal (usually for a week to ten days) from the local shelter has worked well (sorry about the feral cats..) also, working at a local radio station (community radio that is…) has been a great deal of fun, however, they have me on the board now, which is not quite so pleasant…nonetheless. good luck to you!

  6. Virginia says:

    Despite my differing perception of some of the church-related issues you mention — I’d bring up “Rashomon” if I’d ever seen it — I hear you. People, present company included, can be annoying, disappointing, and just plain exhausting. I just want you to know how much I enjoyed volunteering with you and how much I appreciate all you did during that time. And if you do find a group to work with where the people don’t drive you crazy, please let me know.

  7. GingerR says:

    I belonged to a small church when I joined a church after moving to the area where I still live. Never again. I think that 400 members is the minimum necessary for the healthy cross-pollination and burnout avoidance.

  8. Pingback: Another Wedding | Middle-Age Cranky

  9. Pingback: Lessons From People You Hate | Middle-Age Cranky

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