I’m Back, With a New Focus

"nikon em bokeh" by dsevilla on Flickr
"nikon em bokeh" by dsevilla on Flickr

I think I’m ready to pick up the blog again!

My focus has changed since I last posted.  I thought about starting a new blog, but I think that the underlying theme of what I’ve been thinking and doing has remained the same.

What Has Changed:

  • I moved across the country and am now a proud resident of Maryland.
  • I will be teaching ESL part-time through a community college at a nonprofit starting Monday, 7/12.

What I Plan to Write About:

  • My experiences teaching.
  • Whether or not to stay in nonprofits.
  • What professional development I should pursue.
  • What’s next?

Looking forward to blogging again!

NP Career and Money: Where’s the Conversation?

This is post six of six in a series about career and money from the point of view of a low-level nonprofit worker.  For some reason I hear little about it in nonprofit land.  The bottom line: if you don’t read The Simple Dollar, start now.

Why Don’t We Talk About This More in Nonprofit Land?

When I was new to an organization I’ve worked for, I was being introduced around on my first day.  When I met the accounting assistant, she let me know that the check cutting process was quite simple and that if I ever needed a reimbursement check immediately, even if it was small, that I just needed to ask and it would be done.  I remember thinking that that was very sweet but that I would never put myself in that position.

The thing is, she said it for a reason: because it happens.  It’s surely happened to people I’ve worked side by side with.  A couple of unlucky circumstances or bad decisions later, it easily could be me asking accounting to reimburse my mileage today instead of next week.  I’m closer to the margin than I’d like to think.

And that brings me to my question: why aren’t we talking about this?  Why don’t we swap money-saving tips, and carpool, and have our office properly on a bus line, and pool childcare, and barter, and share free events, and organize our own free entertainment?  Why don’t we actively share resources on personal finance and tax advice and saving energy?  Why don’t financial advisers donate a lunch break to give some guidance to nonprofit workers?  Why do we have #nptech but not #npsalary?

How else could we be supporting all of these individuals who are choosing not to maximize their earning potential?  And should they have to make this choice?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and any resources you know of!

NP Career and Money: I Nurture My Savings

Goals Meet Reality: I Nurture My Savings

As you know, I don’t use my money to acquire a vast collection of teabag holders.  What do I do with it?

I basically have two types of savings: use when circumstances in the future dictate (i.e. emergency fund, retirement fund) and use when I want to (i.e. Positive Surprises).

I fund my savings automatically.  Over a year ago I spent a few minutes setting up automatic transfers from my credit union’s checking account to a few ING Direct savings accounts, and amazingly, my savings have grown!  I also have automatic transfers that go into my 401K and a Roth IRA.

I also put some money into a modest investment in a mutual fund from time to time, and have had CDs (certificates of deposit) in the past.

Why do I do this instead of renting a bigger apartment or eating my way through every interesting restaurant on Lake St?

Because it protects me from falling into debt.

"We've Picked Something Up on the Radar!" by Don Solo on Flickr
"We've Picked Something Up on the Radar!" by Don Solo on Flickr

Because it was like magic that I didn’t have to worry when my car needed new brakes; I just pulled the money out of the “Car” account I had set up.  Even nicer is that car maintenance just disappeared off my mental radar for a while after the brake work, but my automatic transfers continued while my head was in the clouds.  As a result, my “Car” account is almost back where it was before the brake work and I didn’t have to pay a lick of attention.

Because it’s not my low-stress personality that’s keeping me from being frantic about how nonprofits are faring as the Governor, legislature and Feds make tough money choices during the recession.  I just keep popping money into my general emergency fund.

Because it’s exciting to watch my “Positive Opportunities” savings grow.  That little account is different from the “buffers between me and disaster” accounts.  It means that when I find a good deal on the computer I want, I can pounce.  It means I can attend professional conferences that aren’t necessarily related to my job.  It means guilt-free, worry-free spending on whatever worthwhile developments I want.  It’s a little shot of freedom.

And of course, all of these choices relate back to what I want.  I think they’re solid tactics, but they could easily be too conservative or too risky for others depending on what they’re looking for.  It really all comes down to what’s important to you.

NP Career and Money: I Spend Little Money

This is post four of six in a series about career and money from the point of view of a low-level nonprofit worker.  For some reason I hear little about it in nonprofit land.  The bottom line: if you don’t read The Simple Dollar, start now.

Goals Meet Reality: I Spend Less Money Than I Technically Could

I’m not even close to being poor.  I have everything I need to be comfortable and fulfilled.

I do operate within certain limitations though.  The thought of finding a place in my kitchen for a food processor or standing mixer is funny.  I don’t have a 65″ HD TV, or an Xbox 360, or a new computer.  I don’t have expensive hobbies like shopping or collecting or underwater photography.

It’s not that having those things wouldn’t be nice.  And it’s not that I couldn’t go acquire them right now – I actually could.  It’s that I want them much less than I want the freedom to work wherever I want to regardless of salary.

Maintaining and increasing this freedom means I really have to ask myself, “Do I need this?” and “Do I even want this?” before I buy things.

My One and Only Teabag Holder
My One and Only Teabag Holder

Sometimes the answer to whether I need or want a given item is surprising.  My friends were baffled when I told them I threw out my old, fragile bed frame and chose not to replace it at all.  My parents are exasperated that my computer turned six years old last week.  My grandmother feels sorry for me because I only own one teabag holder.

But you know what?  I don’t even notice I don’t have those things.  Every morning I get up off my mattress on the floor after a good night’s sleep free of finance-related nightmares, open up my RSS feed on my still-functional computer, have a perfectly-steeped cup of tea with breakfast, and then head out to a job I love.

Let me reiterate that I’m not equating earning a small amount of money with happiness.  That would be nonsense.  I’m saying that I try select employment with a job-first mentality instead of a salary-first mentality.  Spending much less than I earn helps me be flexible enough to pursue the work I want regardless of what it pays me, and I try to make my big and small choices align with this goal.

And besides, who wants to dust half a hundred teabag holders?

NP Career and Money: High Income Doesn’t Mean You’re Rich

This is post three of six in a series of six pieces about career and money from the point of view of a low-level nonprofit worker.  For some reason I hear little about it in nonprofit land.  The bottom line: if you don’t read The Simple Dollar, start now.

Financial Reality: High Income Doesn’t Mean You’re Rich

During this discussion of the relatively low salaries in nonprofit land, I’d just like to point out a truth that’s all over the big blogs in personal finance: it’s not about your income; it’s about your income exceeding your expenditures. You can have a hefty income and still be the opposite of rich.

Yes, it comes down to simple money management.  The money you earn but don’t spend is your wealth.

Simple is not always easy.  Controlling your income and your spending can be very difficult.  On these fronts, I’ve been very lucky.

  • I’ve had very little trouble finding jobs, so I’ve always had relative control over my income.
  • I currently have very few demands in my expenditures.  My health has been good, I have no dependent family members, I live in a city with reasonable rents, and thanks to my parents I have a reliable used car and no undergrad student loans.

I guess I could take my luck lightly, assume it will always be this way, and not think about it anymore.  You can bet I’d have a bright shiny computer and an apartment with more closet space!  But what can I say, I’m a paranoid New Yorker.  I believe that challenges will come my way, and I want to be ready for them.

You might argue that the logical conclusion for such a security fanatic is for her to pursue a higher-paying career path.  The thing is, money isn’t the only resource stability requires. I don’t believe that a wildly higher income would necessarily help me meet a sudden emergency if my increased earnings came at the expense of a job satisfaction, time with loved ones, or my day-to-day happiness.  I think all of these resources, monetary and other, need to be balanced.

So what do I do to try to keep this balance?  I remember my goals, and I try to be a steward of what money I have.  More on what that looks like on Wednesday.

NP Career and Money: Job-First Mentality

This is post two of six in a series of six pieces about career and money from the point of view of a low-level nonprofit worker.  For some reason I hear little about it in nonprofit land.  The bottom line: if you don’t read The Simple Dollar, start now.

Financial Reality: Job-First Mentality

Having boatloads of money has never sounded as important to me as having a meaningful job.  My goals are much more about having a more holistic quality of life that includes joy, flexibility, and time along with a reasonable amount of money.

It’s what I think of as a job-first mentality: first I’ll find a job I like, then I’ll make the rest work. I really enjoy working with people, usually in an educational setting.  I’ve worked on basic literacy with preschoolers, families, and adult learners.  I love giving presentations, teaching music lessons, and even babysitting.  So these are all what I do.  They aren’t surefire ways to be a millionaire by age thirty, but they make me happy and pay the rent too.

I seriously almost did a spit-take when I heard an actual salary quote for an entry-level programmer.  It was more than my estimate of what nonprofit directors make.  It hurt, even for someone who was never concerned with having boatloads of money before.  Why are skills in my field valued so very much less than in programming?  Did I make a mistake by taking this career path?

The sticker shock faded and my worldview normalized.  I don’t think I made a mistake.  I think that mistakes are made in undervaluing and underfunding nonprofits, but as far as my daily experience and impact are concerned, I’m exactly where I need to be.

That being said, who knows what the future might throw at me?  What if some crisis happens where I suddenly need some significant financial resources?  If I manage what money I have wisely, I’ll be far less likely to have to ask myself, “Do I need to switch to a salary-first mentality to get through this?”

Job-first doesn’t mean I don’t think about money.  It’s actually quite the opposite.

NP Career and Money: My Goals

I’m finishing out 2009 with a series of six posts about career and money from the point of view of a low-level nonprofit worker.  For some reason I hear little about it in nonprofit land.  The bottom line: if you don’t read The Simple Dollar, start now.

My Goals

It’s a simple question, but not everyone can answer it:  What is it that you want?

If you’re not sure how to answer that question yourself, I’d recommend looking at The Simple Dollar’s series “31 days to fix your finances” or this post on setting goals even if you have no idea where to start or where you’d like to go.

These are my goals:

  • I want to have joy and understanding in my life.
  • I want to have a healthy relationship with my job, one where we both get something out of it.
  • I want to make choices, not have them made for me.
  • I want to have enough money to be flexible and generous.
  • I want to have time for the people I love, and also time for people I’m lukewarm about.

They’re pretty general, but there’s something extremely helpful about having 70 words sum up who I am and who I’d like to be.  It helps me focus on what’s important and gives me confidence that I am indeed on the right path.

I’m not looking to amass money as quickly as possible so I can retire as early as possible.  I’m not looking to pile on the stress in order to stay on my toes.  I’m not grabbing for as much power as I can get so I can finally put things right in my own eyes.

My current job is actually completely aligned with what I’m looking for.  I love being a coordinator.  I have a modest degree of autonomy, I get to work directly with volunteers and students, and I have the free time and the emotional energy to spend with people who are important to me.

At risk of being shocking, I also have enough money.  More on that soon.

Goals, Patience, and Distraction

When I first started working at the learning center, I felt really new.  The teachers and students all had way more experience there than I did and I often responded to questions with, “I’m not sure, but I’ll find out.”

I was really, really looking forward to the day when I stopped being “the NEW coordinator” and became “the coordinator.”

That’s not the kind of goal I can keep in the forefront of my mind.  It’s all about just doing your best across a long string of days, and I wasn’t about to start repeatedly asking myself, “Are we there yet?”  So I moved my focus to other things: volunteer management,  schedules, conferences, teacher observations, new classes, and a hundred other things.

(By the way, research actually shows that one important strategy for maintaining patience is to distract yourself.)

Maybe a month ago I had an opportunity to chat with one of our students.  As we talked and she asked me for advice, I realized that I had automatic credibility because of that long string of good days I had worked.  I wasn’t new anymore.  It was a Pinocchio moment in which I became real.

It felt great to achieve that goal from over a year ago.  While I think I was right to not think about it all the time, I’m not sure I had to completely forget about it.

For those goals where you need to take your eyes off the prize, how do you not completely lose sight of them?  Do you just rely on chance circumstances to remind you?

Volunteer Management Conference

After being kind of disappointed by MinneTESOL, I wasn’t hugely excited about the next conference on my list, the Volunteer Management Conference.

Concrete Bricks by Alesa Dam on Flickr
Concrete Bricks by Alesa Dam on Flickr

It seemed unlikely to be valuable because I was feeling pessimistic about conferences in general, and also because volunteer management is kind of a “fluffy” profession, not backed up by much research or data or formal history.

I’m thrilled to report that I was pleasantly surprised.  The sessions I went to did not perpetuate the fluff, but sought to give us concrete ideas and skills for taking our work to the next level.

I gained background in creating a volunteer-led ESL curriculum, setting up focus groups (of students and volunteers), addressing the 80/20 rule of life (that 80% of your effort will go to 20% of your tasks and problems), and creating well-designed flyers and brochures.

I think I actually found the last one to be the most useful.  Making flyers is one of those random parts of my job that I’m expected to just do, and I have never had the slightest bit of training on how to do a good job.  The presenter walked us through the four pieces of the puzzle that we need to consider, and three days later I still remember them: proximity, alignment, repetition, and contrast.

Here’s what I think she did right:

  1. limited her scope,
  2. stayed focused on it, and
  3. provided different levels of meaningful practice.

That presentation had no hand-outs.  This was disconcerting at first, but it turned out to be a strength.  Her goal wasn’t to give resources, but to convey four interrelated elements of design.  She didn’t try to make us into designers that afternoon.  The unified design she was teaching us was reflected in her presentation: she taught what she said she was going to teach, and she did it in a way that assured our attention was never split.  She also followed the basic format of a good ESL lesson: I do it, we do it, you do it.  By this I mean she gave us opportunities to practice what we were learning, and that over the course of the session she went from actively guiding our practice to letting us work through examples independently.

I think what made this conference stand out is that all the sessions I went to were taught in this way.  I hope other conferences catch on soon.