I’ve spent a lot of time with nonprofit workers this year. Here’s an observation I think is worth putting into words.
All people are driven by three fundamental needs. Serving in a cross-cultural nonprofit setting messes with all three of them. I think this explains why formerly successful, happy people often struggle mightily in a cross-cultural nonprofit context.
1. We need to feel competent and in control.
Ha! Anyone who has served in a developing country knows this is a laughable idea. Time schedules are unpredictable. You’re less competent than local children at speaking the language. Unreliable infrastructure, government issues, weather, etc. block efforts to achieve your goals on a daily basis. This need gets messed with big time. Welcome to feeling like an idiot whose life is out of control.
Case in point: My friend Joy is an accomplished interpreter for the deaf, and she was successful in a good job using that expertise. Now she’s serving in Haiti in a totally different role, in a language and culture she’s just beginning to learn. A lot of days she doesn’t feel accomplished at all. It’s hard.
2. We need to feel included.
Ouch. International nonprofit workers are left out of conversations in languages they can’t follow. They are left out of cultural traditions back home such as holiday celebrations and important family events. They’re left out of cultural traditions in the field too. They don’t fit in. They are isolated in many ways. This need gets messed with too.
3. We need to feel loved and cared for.
But wait, this is why we serve! Most nonprofit workers I know are deeply motivated to care for others. Knowing they are helping makes all the sacrifice worth it, right? Sometimes it does, but what happens when this need gets messed with too? What happens when the people we are trying to help aren’t making any progress? Or worse, when they hurt us with accusations, theft, or other forms of betrayal?
A friend of mine who leads a poverty-alleviation program in Africa discovered recently that some of the people they serve were stealing from the program.
When we give caring and love to others, consciously or not we want to receive caring and love in return. When we get the opposite, it can rock us.
Things that mess with this need may be the deepest discouragement of all for caring-driven workers, because it strikes at the very motivation to do what they do.
Much conflict arises within and between nonprofit workers as the fulfillment of these three needs gets turned upside down by their experiences on the field.
I think we are best able to serve the way we want to when we are aware of our needs, and our intentional choice to put service first. When we are unaware, feelings of frustration, insignificance, or rejection may sneak up on us. If that happens we become rigid rather than flexible in response to people and circumstances.
Recognize your need to feel competent, included, and loved. It’s not bad to want all three, we are made that way. Build things into your life that satisfy those needs without displacing your highest intention, to serve.
Lastly, be aware of new definitions of success, and celebrate them.
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