self-interested sectors

What’s so different about the for-profit and the non-profit sectors, really? Businesses look out for profit and creating value for their shareholders; NPOs’ and NGOs’ raison d’etre is, well, maintaining their raison d’etre as well as means d’etre (i.e. self survival).

I’m currently in a painful teenage phase of work life: the sweet honeymoon period of innocence and openness is over but the cynical, age-worn resignation to play by the rules is not quite here. Instead, I’m entirely disillusioned and frustrated that things aren’t really how I’d expected. I’m angry that my optimism (shall we say naivete) doesn’t match reality. Everyone is just dishonest to everyone else and especially to themselves, I feel, and it makes me sick.

I’m so torn. I understand all the arguments on either side but lean one way or another depending on my mood that day. On the one hand, things aren’t better in the private sector. I imagine it’s much worse there – having to lie, and for what? Not even having a supposed greater good to fall back on! But at least it’s transparent in the sense that everyone knows. Well, that’s not entirely true, though: for example, Shell’s greenwashing campaign – for a goddamn OIL COMPANY – is probably good enough that many people believe it is actually doing good for the environment. But is that any worse than, say, the World Bank’s greenwashing campaign? Is the World Bank’s even worse because the WB is supposed to work for development when in reality it has all sorts of conflict of interests?

Same argument for organisational openness and flexibility. In companies with strict, hierarchical organisational structures – like the government, for example, or more traditional businesses and institutes – you know where you stand. You know what you are and aren’t allowed to do; how much power you have; the pecking order. In companies and organisations claiming more modern and flexible structures – like start-ups, grassroots projects – the ability for the lowest on the ladder to have their voice heard just as the CEO does is amazing. But there are still limits, and at the end of the day the decision-making power remains with those at the top and your brilliant idea might get shafted.

The lack of sort of sensitivity is killing me. I believe pretty strongly in bringing a conscientious and sensitive voice to the discourse, so it really pains me when colleagues talk PR and use pictures of hungry African children on the cover of our publications. PR is important, but how much are we willing to sacrifice? It’s not only in PR work, either. The kinds of language and conversation in the office about race and gender sometimes make me uneasy. Just because we work with non-white people doesn’t give us some free pass entitlement to talk about race in such generalised and sort of stereotypical ways. Just because we work with non-white people doesn’t make us enlightened to race, racism, racial inequalities, any of that. (To be clear, all 25 or so of my colleagues at the moment are white. Well, one is half Mexican. The only three people who weren’t were all short-term interns.) We lack sensitivity somehow!

Regarding sacrifice, the biggest question in my mind perhaps surrounds the organisation’s values and principles in general. NPOs and NGOs are crazy beholden to their donors, sponsors, funders, partners and grant givers, no matter how ‘independent’ they claim to be. Everyone is in someone’s pocket. So when donors or even potential donors (!) make proposals that are not only truly shitty but go against our values, it is hard to turn them down.

One of my colleagues, who is maddeningly committed to her job and the organisation, responds to all this basically with a variation of ‘Be the change you want to see’ – you don’t get given anything, so if you want something, do it yourself/take it. But I’m young and inexperienced and also tired. I am (was?) idealistic and feel cheated that the third sector turns out to be corrupt, rigid and self-interested. Just like the other two sectors.

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