Consider this — Have we limited the space for idealist youngsters to enter non-profit advocacy?
I’m a professional human rights/social justice advocate and I’ve been one since the early 1980s. My generation created a career path for the professional non-profit advocate. While I’m proud of what we have achieved, I’ve been wondering if we inadvertently contributed to some of today’s political problems or at least our lack of ability to solve them. This first series of blogs will focus on today’s environment and the possible downsides of “professionalization.”
When I started out there was no such thing as a professional advocate. Human rights and other social change organizations were staffed by volunteers or people paid next to nothing. Those who started WOLA in the mid-70’s were seconded by churches, started as volunteers or received tiny stipends.
A decade later, when I began, things were not much different. As people matured and had families they couldn’t afford to stick around. They went to graduate school or moved on to other sectors. Non-profit advocates were expected to get “real” jobs.
My generation changed that. We made long-term work in advocacy a possibility. The term used to describe that process was “professionalization.” Those of us who ran these organizations learned management and our offices became well run. We established policies for advancement and benefits, like health insurance and retirement contributions. The work became sustainable. It was possible to stay in the non-profit sector because you could afford have a family and maybe even buy a house.
We also became experts in our fields and gained the respect of those in government, academia and the media.
These are good things. People should have retirement plans and maternity leave. I’m proud of the sustainability, fairness and professionalization that we brought to the sector.
But, every yin has its yang. As we became experts and good managers, and less activist volunteers, I’m wondering if we didn’t lose some things along the way.
I think we need to ask ourselves some questions.
Does the current professionalized environment reduce space for idealistic young problem solvers?
Because the field I entered was not highly professionalized, there was a place for someone like me, with energy and commitment, but not much skill. When I started working on Latin America and immigration issues I wasn’t “qualified.” I didn’t even speak Spanish (although I did make myself learn shortly thereafter).
I became who I am today because there was a place for an eager idealist from Wisconsin with no qualifications.
Today, internships in Washington are a competitive business, even the unpaid ones. WOLA has a rotation of interns – about 20 of them a year – and these are highly coveted positions. If you aren’t bi-lingual, you need not apply. Most applicants have some kind of cross-cultural experience already under their belts. I often joked that if I had started in the current environment, I wouldn’t have qualified to be my own intern.
That’s kind of sad. By requiring so much expertise of interns are we not limiting who can enter the field? The next time you hire an intern, take another look at that enthusiastic kid who isn’t too qualified.
Next installment – Experts talking to Experts