A Nonprofit Story

There was once a nonprofit organization not dissimilar to yours. It wasn’t a nonprofit at first. It was just a few people: James, Maria, and Robert. Separately, they each enjoyed something of the American dream. Their homes weren’t so prefab and crunched together. The surrounding mountains weren’t excavated flat. Stream water wasn’t clouded with sediment and chemicals. Trees provided shade and clean air. For the most part, theirs was a neighborly community. It was here they dreamed of living and loving, walking as elders with their children’s children.

Others had different ideas. Plans that a Mr. Smith moved forward, spelled the end of their paradise. James went to reason with Smith. But the office allowed him no further than to schedule an appointment. The first available was after the projected end of paradise. Then the meeting was to canceled anyway.

James visited with Maria and Robert. They thought about their families. They considered how paradise lost would impact other families. More had to be done. So they rolled up their sleeves.

They worked late into many nights. Robert penciled out bylaws and filed for 501c3 status. James and Maria sharpened their composition skills on letters to the editor. All three knocked on doors, wrote letters, made phone calls to marshal the action of the greater community. Together they overwhelmed the person who took phone messages and picked up the mail during the public comment period. Then they surprised public officials as they filled the town hall for the public hearing.

But officials could not conceptualize governance without exploitation. And Smith dismissed them as selfish. “You just wanna lock up paradise for your own private playground,” he said.

So they read books on law, citizen rights, and legal action. Robert sought counsel until he found someone to represent them. They learned the hard way how court cases aren’t always heard. That when heard, it’s often not the next week, the following month, or even the year after. And that development doesn’t stop without a court order. Even after waiting so long the court didn’t give the answer they thought was right. They appealed and researched other relevant cases and appeals.

They discovered no common citizen has access to the ear of government. James lobbied Members of Congress. Maria led letter writing and calling campaigns. Finally, their MoC invited them to meet briefly. Their representative was introducing a bill the preservation of paradise. But soon they learned the hard way how bills introduced in Congress die by the thousands.

They publicly protested Smith’s plan as ground broke. In frustration, they resorted to shenanigans like chaining themselves to the gates even monkeywrenching in the night. Once respected citizens, James and Maria were taken to jail for the first time in their lives. James was fired. Robert divorced. All of them lost time and money. Smith derided them as ne’er-do-wells.

But their home was on the line, their children’s future, their grandchildren’s inheritance.

They grew stronger. They persisted. In fact, their lives became defined by more by their fight for paradise than by their jobs.

There were windows. A bill would gain traction. A day in court scheduled. But then… nothing. They were back to searching legal options, writing MoCs, marching, demonstrating, and monkeywrenching. More letters, more calling, more doorbells. Eventually, it seemed the activism itself was all they’d ever known.

Then suddenly they won.

Something someone said, something paid, some externality internalized, finally got attention.

And just like that, it was over.

Now their mission was over. Where to go from here?

Advocacy at its core is education. They could take their success to similar issues. Their skills applied to worthwhile endeavors.

They kept the fire alive. There was always the next program, outreach, or protest. They learned how to raise funds, apply for grants, appeal to organizations, or drive membership. People gave and joined, compelled by friends, politics, values. But most were soon gone. Still, they made it work.

The years turned into a decade and more. Little by little, like water heating around a frog, the world changed. New preoccupations captured people’s attention. Phones moved off of wall into people’s hands. Mail came to a computer rather than the postbox. And young adults trusted technology, government, and collaboration.

Their nonprofit lost one significant grant and struggled for others against hundreds of applicants. Most people shared online statuses but not donations. Volunteers wanted an experience, not a cause. The staff and board grew estranged, distrustful, pessimistic. Consequently, they took each other for granted. Some took advantage. The staff challenged a rotating door of executive directors. The board was quick to fire staff members. No one could produce any documents that adequately demonstrated transparency or strategy. And they were defensive against public questions whether or not they remained relevant.

Finally Maria fell to sickness. Robert to death. And James sunk into loneliness and depression.

But… the threats still surround their paradise. Laws challenge whether it will long survive. The Smiths of the world gain power. Data shows more people in faraway cities even prefer parking lots. Politicians take money and power in exchange for industry influence over law of the land.

And they look at their grandchildren, playing on iPods in virtual bitmap worlds. They remember their dream of taking walks through that paradise they fought and gave their lives to protect. And they see their mission is more relevant now than ever before. But they question whether anyone is listening.

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