I should begin with a caveat, I would imagine I am unlike most of the people writing for this blog. I have never worked or interned for an NGO. The idea of sitting and working in an office with the paid staff of an organization that serves (or at least attempts to serve) no other purpose than to better the world is completely foreign to me. I have worked alongside many, and have worked to start one, but there is certainly a part of the NGO experience that I lack.
All this is to say that I must accept that perhaps the feeling which I’m about to discuss is not shared by those who are in more established roles, but honestly, I hope it isn’t.
The thought comes every once and a while. Often during a day or two of lull between projects. And when it comes, I can’t easily shake it.
Am I actually doing anything?
Am I just wasting my time?
Have I made any kind of difference?
And before you think it, and I’m sure you are – as a critical mind should – no I’m not some delusional twenty-something who thinks that all my work should be rewarding or that the world owes me anything. This question doesn’t come from anger or annoyance but rather, fear. And this fear manifests itself in two distinct ways.
The first is the selfish fear that I am wasting my time professionally. That what I’m doing has no worth in the ‘real world’ because I’m living the life of a volunteer. Money is the fast track to perceived worth in our society. Sure accolades, awards and other forms of recognition can give you worth as well, but in the end, there will always be the thought, if you aren’t getting paid, how good could you be? And knowing this, the fear is always:
If I fail,
If this doesn’t work out,
If I have wasted my past few years,
What can I do?
The second is more metaphysical (I’m sorry; I have to use my Philosophy undergrad for something). Ideally, those who enter the world of NGO’s do so with a purpose in mind. Whether it be specific, “I want to work with communities in rural India in an effort improve solar power infrastructure and access to electricity” or the generic “I want to make the world a better place”. It’s the answer to why the first fear is worth it.
But to be driven by such a purpose opens one up to a second fear, a fear far more difficult to eradicate from the corners of one’s mind. And it takes the form of the same question. “Am I actually doing anything?” “Is my fourteenth hour of copy-editing improving the lives of the impoverished? Have the last few weeks of video production put the world in a better place to fight climate change? Is anything I am doing really making a difference?”
These are the kinds of questions you ask yourself at 10:00 pm, when you know that another long night lies ahead of you, with the couch and a cold beer beckoning. I imagine that this fear is most common with those who are young and new to the NGO realm. As you stand more removed from the decision making process, the more generic and seemingly pointless your work can feel, but I’d be surprised if it ever goes away completely.
As an aside I often feel that it is this fear that leads to the more traditional (read: inferior and arguably detrimental) development projects. No one will ever agree to have their 2 week voluntourism stint revolve around data entry. You build a school and BAM! There’s a school where there wasn’t one before; that’s tangible. The logistics behind maintaining the school certainly aren’t. But that’s why all the ads tell you to buy a village a goat rather than an administrative assistant.
Getting back to the point at hand, most of us, and if you aren’t included in this us consider yourself incredibly lucky, find ourselves doing work that is at best tangibly related to our ‘purpose’. Some causes lend themselves more to ambiguity. Was all the work to get Kyoto ratified for naught? Or is just the idea of its existence at least some form of a victory? Even in organizations where the work is clear and tangible, that good can feel miles away from the underpaid intern whose job consists mostly of fawning over corporate donors and filling out spreadsheets.
And so the question comes back again.
Am I doing Anything?
I’ve been asking myself this question for the better part of two years, and I’ve come to two conclusions. The first is that I will never truly know the answer and the second, is that I never want to stop asking it. The impact of failing to ask this question can be seen within the plentiful examples of NGO’s gone wrong, whether it’s the Susan B Komen foundation suing other Cancer charities that use the phrase “For the Cure” or World Vision dumping 100,000 NFL shirts in Zambia.
Organizational culture is a powerful thing, and without employees who ask themselves this question it can become overwhelming. “This is how it has always been done” trumps “Wouldn’t this be better?” Commitment to the organization trumps commitment to the cause. The only defense against this is to simply never stop questioning. For the second that you stop asking yourself the question is the same moment that the answer becomes, almost certainly: no.