Nikhil (left) in an interaction with community members in his office-cum-home space
“The social sector is for the rich”
This was the reaction I got when I announced to my mom that I was going to work for a non-profit for a year; this shall remain with me forever. That something as profound as this, would come from my mom was no surprise to me. However there was an unsettling feeling of not knowing this for myself. Holding this statement in my gut without digesting, I moved ahead and having currently worked for a non-profit for over 8 months, I would like to share eight things about what I have experienced from the simplest to the most complex.
Work space is a myth
People on the field rarely have an office. My home usually triples up as an office and meeting space. Sometimes, a colleague’s home, where the neighbor’s children would come and go, luring us to play with them. I’ve also worked inside public transport, though my laptop condemns this seriously. The traditional office space with amenities and privacy is a far cry for most in the social sector. Hence, here one learns to adapt to the environment. I can now work in almost any space that I’m in.
You are not in a 9-6 job, literally!
While most non-profits have set work timings on paper, it is really hard for field staff to follow them in practice. This is because we plan our work around our community. Most village meetings like self-help group meetings, tribal forums etc. happen after dusk when people return from their work or early in the morning before people go to work. I have had days where I have not had anything to do all day and so much to do only in the evenings and nights and vice versa.
O dear money!
Money matters a lot to non-profits. It is very close to their hearts. There is meticulous accounting of every single rupee that goes into the projects, into travel and miscellaneous expenses. Field staff usually get their travel expenses reimbursed. For this, at my organization, we have to safeguard all our tickets and then stick them on a sheet one next to the other and also write below each ticket the source, the destination and the amount. Then my supervisor has to check and tally it so that there are no errors. Sometimes I feel it consumes too much time and can be simpler but it has brought in a level of discipline in my life.
Really loooooooong meetings
Having worked in a corporate and two startups, the format around meetings has always been the same. The shorter the better. Especially in startups, where long meetings means loss of productive hours. I remember my first monthly sharing meeting here, where the village social workers of a block attend. It went on for the whole day! I learnt that qualitative sharing always needs time. Problems of the community are often complex and 360 degree discussion happens only after you get all the first layer solutions out. In the social sector, the longer the meetings, the better.
Working with people from the other side
Most people who are from the business sector have an analytical way of thinking. Performance is also often measured on a quantitative scale. There is a serious danger when one tries to apply these engineering or management principles of efficiency and idealism to social systems. While on the other hand, we yearn for qualitative progress. I’ve had heated discussions with our consultants from the business world on this. They complain that there is no accountability for results. But what they fail to understand is that the metrics are different. I don’t blame the ignorant.
Imagine you are sitting on an armchair and you got an amazing idea for a novel. You feel that this idea is one in a million and will make you a bestseller. Now, how much time would it actually take you to write and publish the novel? In systems thinking terms, a delay is when the effect of an action occurs after a break in time. While this is common everywhere, it is significant in the social sector. That’s why interventions take time to show results. The Comprehensive Rural Health Project by the Aroles took seventeen years to become self-sustainable. Even in my day to day work, I’ve realized, I cannot change things instantly even though I act on it instantly. It takes about a month before I see the results of my actions. This means, what I want to see next month, I should do now.
Falling in love with complexity
While this sounds cheesy, let me tell you what falling in love with complexity really means. Most problems faced by social sector professionals are contextual in nature. A solution that worked with one community may not work with the other. Results may differ even in neighboring villages. What this essentially means is that, most of us working in the social sector are at the moment facing at least one problem for which we have no clue what the solution could be. Quick fixes don’t work. People are complex. Hence, we have no other choice but to hold on to our complex problems with love. If we stress over our problems, we may remain stressed forever as problems in this sector are never fully solved; they evolve.
Biting the bullet
When you are working at a nonprofit, ethical dilemmas are aplenty. This happens because each of us have our own opinions on development and how social work should be performed. Your ideology may not match that of your organization. One must learn to handle these situations with grace. It is important to remember that there’s no one right or wrong path. This particular aspect makes working in the social sector all the more complex than it already is. I believe this teaches us to let go sometimes and eventually grow.
I guess, now I shall get back to my mom, not to disprove her, but perhaps to add to her layer of thoughts and judgement about the social sector. But who knows, she might even know all of this already!