Working at a nonprofit can sometimes be tough, thankless work. DurhamCares, where I work, is one of hundreds of nonprofits registered in the county. We work to inspire and mobilize Durham residents around the city’s most pressing issues, but I’m just one employee.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve worked with caring nonprofit leaders and have learned from the experts. I’ve also heard anecdotes about how my work affected those in need, but I sometimes worried I wasn’t seeing proof of our efforts.
Thousands of people need care, and thousands more need to care. Daily, I cradle my cup of coffee and contemplate the city’s issues. Am I up to the task? At the end of the day, what do we have to prove we’ve made an impact? The task can feel overwhelming at times.
Part of that doubt stems from working on the same project for months on end. Feedback is important, and I realized I craved it when I worked as a television news reporter for three years in my previous job.
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While reporting, I often asked myself if I thought stories I covered made a difference. Some days, I worked on stories that had a direct impact on families and viewers. Other days, I wasn’t sure. Over time, stories that once gave me an adrenaline rush became more mundane.
At the end of a day of reporting, I almost always had a finished product to present. I reported on live television and posted daily stories online. I had hundreds of archived news stories to my name, each one illustrating my productive career.
I studied journalism partly to make a difference through news. But, more selfishly, I wanted proof I had left an impact. That eventually left me wondering: proof for whom and for what purpose?
Several months into my nonprofit job, I realized I no longer had a tangible, finished product by the end of the day. Instead, I worked for months developing marketing campaigns and tested a new model for community development. I had little evidence my job was making a difference, at least, not the type of evidence I was used to.
Sure, we had the Google docs, the emails, and the collateral to illustrate larger issues in Durham. I networked with executive directors, had dozens of meetings over coffee, and fashioned a marketing campaign. I had no finished product at the end of the day – far from it. I felt as though there was little I could reference to speak to the impact our work had. Ultimately, I wondered if our time and effort would materialize into impact.
I know volunteers who often feel that same way. They’re fatigued, and unsure if they’re the best role model, friend, or coach. Going through the motions can make your time seem fruitless. Not being able to see the impact you have on a broader issue can make your mindset even worse.
Constantly asking ourselves if we’re making a difference, and approaching our careers of choice with skepticism can keep you from falling into complacency. That doubt and self-reflection can be healthy.
Working to mitigate Durham’s challenges can seem daunting. It can take a lifetime of work to begin to solve just one issue. As Durham undergoes growing pains, some problems are threatening to get worse, particularly when it comes to our children, our seniors, and gentrification. At the end of the day, when working on a months-long project, it can be overwhelming to not know if it has had any impact or if we’re focused on the most pressing issue.
Thankfully, that work has translated into results. They’re sometimes unsolicited, and almost always unexpected. Were seeing it happen on social media and in emails of thanks from other nonprofits for helping recruit new volunteers and donors.
A few weeks ago, I couldn’t step away from my desk without a nonprofit joyfully getting in touch to report they’d had dozens of new volunteers express interest in their organization. Emails with multiple exclamation points in the subject line are usually the best kind to open.
Learning about that impact after many months of work motivates me to keep going. I might not have a daily reminder of my work as I did when I worked as a reporter, but seeing the long-term impact of mobilizing volunteers is gratifying, perhaps more so than my time spent reporting.
Now, I know my neighbors have become inspired to volunteer. They’re readers of these columns, who have sent me an email, shared a story, or reached out to get involved as a result of something I wrote.
That type of validation and the quality of our work is what truly matters, so we can move forward together.
Elizabeth Poindexter is marketing coordinator at DurhamCares. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org