She poured herself a bourbon on the rocks and eased back into her Restoration Hardware leather couch, leaving space for her cat, Queenie, to join her when she was ready. The couch, and her cat for that matter, fit the rest of the modern decor of her Williamsbridge loft apartment with aplomb. The couch was the one thing bougie and mass-produced she owned. That, and her iPhone of course. At least the bourbon was small batch, hand-crafted at one of the distilleries nestled along the Hudson River. She couldn’t remember which one, but the pourer doing the tasting was a Brooklyn transplant and assured her, as a Sherpa would a kindred spirit, the burn was subtle, almost velvety. He was right.
It had been more than a week since she spent time with either of her two amber-colored friends – Queenie and the bourbon — just as it had been more than a week since she sat on her couch. And while she saw weeks like any other, a treadmill to conquer one workout at a time, this one was exhausting beyond measure, especially for someone who found herself more at ease during life’s quiet moments, away from crowds and being on public display.
There was the strategic planning meeting, hosted by a local foundation more interested in using their resources to teach people to fish even though their boat hold was brimming over with the day’s catch and thousands were starving onshore.
There was the cultivation event hosted by one of her donors, a former corporate wizard still much beloved in the community and possessing as many contacts as rabbits in his hat even though he was recently “downsized” and anointed her nonprofit as his most recent toy to play with.
There was the rooftop fundraising cocktail party thrown by the local junior league wannabees benefiting her nonprofit, although most of them couldn’t get the name of her organization right.
There was the Gala for the century’s old partner agency her nonprofit worked closely with in the community, and her Board members furtively envied.
And there was the private donor dinner meeting out on Long Island that didn’t get her back to her apartment, her bourbon, and her couch, until very late.
Easy social grace and temperament did not come naturally to her, having grown up on a farm in upstate New York. But as a Program Director who also happened to be her nonprofit’s highest ranking staffer after the Executive Director left for greener pastures, she could hardly say no to any of these forays. Not just because she was one of the final candidates for the actual ED job. But rather, because it was strongly hinted at by a couple of her board members that she attend.
Even though she’d rather spend every waking minute with the children and families being served by her organization, she told her herself, going to these meetings and events and engaging the outside community was a win for those she served. And even if she wasn’t totally at ease in that world, she would do it in a heartbeat, because all she cared about was helping them. Indeed, other than a handful of short-lived relationships and Queenie, it had been all she cared about since graduating college some ten years earlier.
It had been just as long since anyone gave a damn about her organization or for that matter, those it served… since well before the Recession when it was “trendy” to give to grassroots programs that helped the most financially disenfranchised in New York City. But in the wake of the financial maelstrom, the begging for help grew louder and louder above the din, until the City’s elite pushed back, closed their windows, locked their doors, and only ventured out to throw a few coppers to the more established and entrenched nonprofits. A paternalistic world-view on full parade.
Perhaps the staff at the established and entrenched nonprofits were better trained and equipped to skulk past the barred gates to find their quarries. Or, perhaps they were just better positioned by the virtue of their size to withstand a few body blows. But that’s not what she told herself. She believed it was all about passion… passion for the mission… for those the organization served… and by those leading it, especially the members of the Board of Directors.
She believed that’s why grassroots organizations like hers were suffering… a lack of passion for making a difference in the world.
And for those being helped in the first place.
She said as much, during her interview for the ED position, to the search committee made up of a handful of otherwise absentee Board members — three corporate wizards and two old-money philanthropists, all with New York City roots snaking back more than a century. All major donors to the organization for years, that gave not because of a passion for the mission but rather as a form of absolution for not being involved. She wasn’t accusatory, of course, but she didn’t shy away from speaking her mind in an effort to clearly articulate a vision for the organization under her steady hand. Search committees like vision. And passion.
Her former corporate wizard donor who was still much beloved in the community agreed with her assessment that search committees liked those qualities, during a recent lunch when she confided in him that she was applying for the ED position. But he disagreed wholeheartedly with the notion that it was all about passion.
“Your nonprofit isn’t floundering because of past ineptitude or rudderless leadership, but rather because it was systemically held back from impact because of the faucet drip of money coming in from a community unaware of its purpose. Your organization needs to generate broad-based community engagement, and that’s only going to happen if someone gets out there and meets people,” he told her.
She took his comments with a grain of salt, ultimately rejecting his advice because after all, he was recently unemployed and had a hard time understanding the nonprofit world or even what her organization did. But more specifically, she rejected his opinion, because he looked and sounded exactly like the board members doing the hiring in the first place… the same ones lacking in passion for the mission and the children and families she helped every day. “How could he know what he’s talking about… he’s part of the problem… people who get involved because of reasons of status or networking and not because they bleed for the cause.”
Even though she felt like an outsider having grown-up in a world utterly unlike that which the members of the search committee knew as their reality, she was convinced that her passion for helping just one more child and family would be enough to convince them that she was the right person for the ED job. Because, it was all about passion.
As she sat on her couch sipping the bourbon slowly, she scrolled through the day’s emails on her phone, responding to each with the diligence of a first-time lover. As she threw back the last amber drop, a text came in from her former corporate wizard donor still much beloved in the community. Even if she didn’t agree with his vision for the organization, she had meant to thank him for hosting the cultivation event and for introducing her to dozens of his friends from the community.
Although she knew him as a gregarious fellow accustomed to witty banter, his text was anything but.
“I’m sorry. I know you wanted this.”
Confused, she quickly shot back a response.
“For what? Wanted what?”
She waited what seemed like an eternity before the new email light pinged on her work account. She opened it, and read the first few lines.
“We regret to inform you that after careful deliberation, the search committee decided to make an outside hire for the Executive Director position. We ultimately chose someone who more closely meshes with the Board of Directors and aligns with their vision… someone who can lead a comprehensive effort to engage the community and is comfortable going out and meeting people… a former corporate wizard much beloved in the community with extensive contacts and has worked here for years…”
His text finally made sense.
She stopped reading the email, put down her phone and got up to pour herself another bourbon. When she eased back onto the couch, her cat finally joined her, just as the first tear fell.