The Washington Post recently featured an article about the correlation between having a sense of meaning in life and greater longevity.
This set me to thinking about meaning and the nonprofit sector. If any sector of society has “cornered the market” on meaning, surely it is our sector.
Even though different people find meaning in different things, opportunities for meaning abound in the nonprofit world. Nonprofits care for people: for the very young and the very old; for those who are ill or disabled; for those who are homeless, imprisoned, or impoverished. Nonprofits advocate for civil rights and racial justice. Nonprofits care for animals and the environment. And so much more.
Many years ago, I read an article suggesting the practice of putting on paper just a few words about what is most important to you – and then carrying this paper around with you. On a small piece of cardstock, long since tattered and then lost, I wrote the names of my dearest loved ones, along with these three words:
My career in the nonprofit sector has enabled me to work toward justice and has helped me to find both meaning and joy.
I’ve chosen long-term positions in organizations addressing homelessness, poverty, and mass incarceration because these are the issues closest to my heart. They are all justice issues and working on them has brought me both a deep sense of meaning and many small moments of joy.
Even in selecting short-term positions as an interim executive director, meaning is important to me. As an interim, I’ve led organizations addressing hunger, immigration, and LGBTQ rights because those issues are deeply meaningful to me, both personally and professionally.
I’ve had a varied career in nonprofits across four cities over many years, so I’m going to make a few bold claims here:
Here’s the bottom line: Meaning is a powerful force for human well-being that is widespread in the nonprofit sector, but its effects can be diluted.
Meaning can only stand up to so much. Meaning helps people to hang on when negative things happen. But meaning doesn’t completely inoculate us against “bad stuff” – and especially not against chronic bad stuff. Meaning struggles in the face of toxic leadership or culture. Nepotism, favoritism, microaggressions, yelling, overwork, and unfair pay – these are among the things that wear people down, even in an environment of abundant meaning.
It’s great news for nonprofits that there’s research showing that meaning helps us to live longer. But let’s not just skate on meaning. As nonprofit leaders, we still need to make sure we’re treating our staff well while they are living their longer lives.