I have been fascinated by business engagement with nonprofits for more than ten years. However, the roots of my interest in this topic run deep. To start with, I grew up in rural Maine in a family of four that values fairness and equality above all else. Jokingly, I always say I am from the “buy a box of six doughnuts and you know everybody gets 1.5” family. And how many times did my father tell me that I need to be as respectful and polite to the janitor of the building as the president of the United States? That being a good person on Sunday on the way to church is not enough – one needs to be a good person all week.
In high school, I had my first real job with the Youth Conservation Corps in Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Calais, Maine for the summer of 1976. YCC is one of the early federally sponsored youth service programs that helped pave the way for the AmeriCorps and youth corps programs I have worked with the last 14 years. That summer, I worked every day in my hardhat and boots doing park maintenance. I can now run a chainsaw and use an axe!!
As part of the program, we received environmental education lessons “on the job” from Gary Hirshberg, then college student now Chairman, President, and CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm, the world’s leading organic yogurt producer. He was a strong inspiration for me with his messages that we all need to be stewards of the environment and do our part for the common good. He is still one of my “heroes”; his message of stewardship has stayed with me since then and is the core of my own philosophy today.
I was an AFS exchange student to Finland my senior year of high school. What a great age to be exposed to the wide world and become immersed in the local culture by living with a couple families and going to Finnish high school. I am so grateful I got to experience the differences in how people eat, think, and do things while learning that no matter where we are from, we all share a common core of humanity and the feelings from joy to sorrow that make us all human.
I experienced hostility unexpectedly from some Finnish people I had never met – before I even said hello – just because I was an American. Fascinating and very disturbing! And…I experienced attempts at friendship from some that I expected to view me negatively as it was 1977 and they lived in the USSR and other countries “behind the iron curtain.” Also, fascinating and cause for hope.
The summer before I returned home I taught English at a residential summer institute. On the weekends, my only companions were the 20+ Namibians that were sponsored by the Finnish government to attend local Finnish universities so they could return and be ready for positions of leadership when they were done. Such a group of smart, committed people who spoke Finnish much better than I! I was constantly shocked when I went with the Namibians anywhere, tpeople blatantly stared and a handful (from this highly homogenous country) made derogatory comments to me about my friends because they were black -thinking they could not understand the language. So not true and so very hurtful – and totally based on stereotypes and fear of the unknown.
Don’t get me wrong, for 99% of the time, my time in Finland was one of the best experiences of my life. I still have friends there that will be my friends forever. I truly love Finland and have now been there 8 times!
Due to my YCC experience, I went into the environmental education program at the University of Maine when I started college after I got home. Unfortunately, that program was ahead of its time and was closed when I was one year in so I switched to foods and nutrition as a major. After graduating from the University of Maine, I decided I did not want to plan school or hospital lunches or coach women on how not to eat twinkies for a living.
Instead, I became a manager-in-training for Dansk International Designs where I learned valuable lessons. I had a car accident early on in the program and spent 40 days in the hospital in traction while my broken hip healed. As I had only lived in NH a few weeks, my support network was tiny – only the people I worked with at the Dansk Outlet Store were regular visitors.
When I got back to the job, the managers told me I should not be socializing with the “regular employees” as I was “management.” But who had been the ones that came to visit me those long days in the hospital? Management came once, maybe twice – the others far more regularly. So how to write them off now? The issue was solved because I quit and moved back home with my parents to continue my rehabilitation from the accident.
During that time I got involved with a group at the University of Maine doing development work in Haiti. The concept of using my nutrition knowledge to help people in poor countries totally grabbed me. I went back to grad school at Virginia Tech because after a lot of thinking and research, I chose Tech to continue my work in international community/public health nutrition instead of working with mice on the carcinogenic properties of frying fat. At that time, Virgina Tech had two professors, Ryland Webb (nutrition) and James Baldwin (sociology) who had done extensive nutrition work in Haiti. I wanted to work specifically with them – so I did.
In 1983, as part of my Master’s program, I got an internship to work with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Port-au-Prince for four months working on maternal child nutrition and P.L. 480 issues. I was shocked to learn that a meeting I called for all the major international aid agencies (CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Seventh Day Adventist World Services, etc.) doing maternal child feeding programs was the FIRST time ever they had met all together to share ideas and discuss opportunities for collaboration and avoidance of service duplication.
While there, I also witnessed many examples of do gooders from the U.S. flying in to do projects that were sometimes appropriately designed to meet real basic needs and were not always finished – like half built aquaculture ponds or churches. I still wonder about the group offering orthodontics to 4 or 5 poor children in one small village when they could have done such good doing basic dental care and education with so many more. I got really clear then that good intentions don’t always lead to impact.
After getting an award for my commitment to international nutrition and getting my degree from Virginia Tech, I started in the PhD program at Colorado State University in the Sociology Department as they had done significant work previously on social change and international development. My belief was that nutritionists at that time were so “holier than though” about their prescriptions for improving nutritional status without much consideration of cultural values and the people side of things. I wanted to have a broader perspective.
However, sociology at the PhD level about did me in – I remember so clearly all jokes about being the Erma Bombeck sociologist and the stress of working double time because I did not have the same sociology foundational prerequisites as the others. However, the lessons of the common good, “the rational peasant”, social change and program evaluation stuck with me. I had a Fulbright Grant to the University of Helsinki
A few years later after completing a two-year AAAS Science, Engineering and Diplomacy postdoc Fellowship as a social science analyst in the Agency for International Development’s then Office of Family Planning Services, I was disillusioned about the role of government in bringing people out of poverty in developing countries. At that time social enterprise to solve social issues was starting to take hold and I found it promising.
In 1994, I decided to use my background to affect positive social change in the U.S. partially because living in Denver did not offer lareg opportunities for continuing international work. I worked for the Social Science Education Consortium, a Boulder-based nonprofit as their internal evaluator. During that time, I was approached by a head hunter for Arthur Anderson about a job in their evaluation unit on the campus outside Chicago. I was flattered and went to check it out only to find out one of their hot projects I would work on was studying how small a cubicle can be before it reduces worker productivity. No way! I get that somebody probably needs to do that work but I knew it would never be me.
Also that time, I had just started doing consulting “on the side” for Project STAR, the performance measurement and evaluation training provider for the Corporation for National and Community Service through Aguirre International who I subcontracted with until last year. I started working first with AmeriCorps programs and later VISTA, Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America. My involvement with National Service then grew as I became a Training and Technical Assistance Manager for Governors’ Commissions for National and Community Service working with a 9 state region and later the full national network of state service commissions doing leadership training and organization and board development work.
Key lessons from the early years:
- The value of the common good and good stewardship
- People are really all the same “on the inside” – not matter what race, religion or country of origin
- To make a REAL difference need to use appropriate technology and projects
- Good intentions are not enough
- Need for strategic focused action in local and global communities involving the people being served
- Addressing the issues of our times requires collaboration and tri-sector partnerships between nonprofits, government and the private sector. Government can serve as a catalyst but can’t solve any of it alone.
What came next? Read Part II!