Monday, July 09, 2007

Love the work. Hate the money-grubbing
July 6, 2007

Three years ago, I stepped into the unknown on the work front. I went from being a full-time newspaper columnist to the executive director of a grassroots social agency that helps sex workers.
It’s been hard, good work. But the time has come to pass the torch. PEERS Victoria will soon be in the hands of a new executive director, Chris Leischner, and I’m glad to feel in her the heart, energy and experience for the challenges ahead.
When I tell people I’m leaving PEERS, they generally assume it’s the problems of the people we help that has worn me out.
Yes, it’s fairly stressful to work with people struggling to keep it together. Their problems are ultimately the problems of PEERS if we’re the ones trying to help them figure things out.
But on all but the worst days, I didn’t mind any of that. The far more stressful aspect of the job was the constant need to look for money to do the work.
I hadn’t thought much about the nature of non-profit work before I took the job at PEERS in the summer of 2004. Believe me, it was a steep learning curve.
A non-profit agency shares much in common with private business.
Revenues and expenses. Marketing plans. Human-resource issues. Government regulation. We both grapple with customers and competitors, and better ways to maximize profit while minimizing cost.
But there are significant differences, too.
Joe’s Shoe Store, for instance, succeeds because Joe runs the kind of business that customers love. Once he’s figured out how to please customers, all is well.
The typical non-profit, however, is doing the equivalent of handing out free shoes to anyone who needs them. It can’t count on revenue from its customers, and instead must find another way to cover the cost of all those shoes.
My five previous years in management at the Times-Colonist stood me in good stead at PEERS. The basic management functions are the same.
The endless search for money, however - that was new. I just had no idea that the work of non-profit was funded so precariously.
I understand the dilemma. The taxpayers and donors whose funds fuel the work of non-profits dislike being tied up for the long term, and there are thousands of worthwhile, hungry agencies out there.
But the constant trolling for money is soul-destroying. And to then see people trapped in miserable circumstance because the services aren’t there - well, that gets pretty hard to take.
Non-profits aren’t the only ones living with uncertainty, of course. Back at the shoe shop, Joe may not know whether his store will be around next year any more than a non-profit knows whether its funding will continue.
Joe, however, has the option of trying to be the best darn shoe shop on the block. For a non-profit, doing good work doesn’t guarantee anything.
You could have plenty of satisfied customers walking through your door in the non-profit sector. But that’s not the same thing as having the money to help them.
I found that awfully discouraging.
What could be done about it? A shift to contracts, perhaps.
Whoever is putting up the money for social services deserves to know what they’re paying for, and what societal changes to expect at the end of the day. Contracts provide an opportunity to map out such goals.
More importantly for non-profits, contracts offer stability - five years, maybe even 10 in some distant dream world. For agencies that for the most part live year-to-year, that would be a wonderful thing.
Helping people to their feet is a slow, hard process. It takes time, and no amount of wishing that it were otherwise is going to change that. Oh, the hours I could have given to other PEERS pursuits had I had the luxury of relaxing even for a moment around whether the money for the work would continue to be there.
Granted, a stabilized non-profit sector would require putting an end to using social issues as political fodder. A 10-year contract could conceivably span two or even three governments.
Fortunately, nothing but good would come from moving social issues out of the political realm.
No government ever contemplates eliminating cancer services, or leaving people with broken bones to tough it out. Such matters are by and large beyond the scope of politics.
Extend the same courtesy to health issues like addiction, mental illness, sexual abuse and brain injury, and life will get a whole lot easier for non-profits and the people they serve. Meanwhile, the community would benefit from having problems dealt with rather than merely pushed from one neighbourhood to another.
But we’re a long way from anything like that, and it’s time for me to step aside before I get frustrated to the point of forgetting the many good parts of my time at PEERS.
I’ve loved the work, and will really miss the people. But looking for money all the time just kind of wears a person down.


Anonymous said...

Jodi, I am sorry to see you go. I believe that you did a good job with the agency and that you will be missed. Too many leaders in the non-profit sector deal with the issues you described and then stay too long. You have chosen to leave with your integrity and enthusiasm in tact. Well done. You and I sat and had coffee one day in Victoria a couple of years ago. I was doing a dissertation on MCFD and you agreed to be interviewed. I enjoyed our talk and it helped to focus me as I completed my research. I wish you all the best in what ever comes next.

Anonymous said...

I was thrilled to stumble on this blog entry on Google and had to contact you. I am an acquaintence and "mentee" of Jannit Rabinovitch.

Would you be willing to grant me a 15-minute informational interview by phone? I would be so grateful. My goal is to learn about the contracts, programs and business needs you supported and how to pursue my long-term goal of managing an agency like PEERS.

Please let me know by contacting me through my website at or by e-mail at nerean_ventures @ or better still by phone at 604-767-0275. It would be an honour to speak with and learn from you.

Nadia S. Proctor
President, NVI