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If the Bracelet Fits

October 01, 2010

(Reilly Kiernan recently started a year-long Project 55 Fellowship at the Foundation Center. In her last post, she asked what nonprofits might be giving up as they scramble to integrate social media into their day-to-day activities.)

Silly_bandz My one-now-three-bedroom apartment has more nonprofit employees per square foot than most flats in New York City. That's because I share it with two other twenty-somethings who also work for nonprofits.

Although we're all recent Princeton grads, each of us found our way into the sector via a slightly different route. Mary just started a two-year position at Teach for America and will be teaching third-graders at a charter school in the South Bronx. Dominique, a Project 55 fellow like me, is employed at Education Through Music, a nonprofit that works to bring musical education to children in low-income communities. And I'm here at the Foundation Center.

One night, not too long ago, Dominique said, "You know, we kind of work in a row."

I wasn't sure what she meant, so I asked, "A row?"

"Yeah," she said. "Mary works with children. I help get resources and programs to children. And you help me find the resources."

Dominique's comment got me thinking about how interconnected the nonprofit sector really is. And yet our experiences have been very different.

Mary has been working hard to deliver a curriculum designed to bring her students up to grade level. On a daily basis she has to persuade a group of eight-year-olds to sit still and pay attention. (What could be harder than that?) But while her work is unrelentingly demanding, she's also making a big difference in the lives of her students. This became clear when, a few weeks ago, one of her kids gave her a SillyBand to wear. (Readers of this blog may not appreciate the significance of the gesture, but to the children and tweens of America SillyBandz are a veritable currency.) Mary now proudly sports her pink submarine-shaped bracelet as a constant reminder that the hours of teaching and lesson planning are well worth it.

Because of ETM's small size, Dominque was able to jump right into the fray, suggesting projects of her own from day one, including a massive outreach effort designed to expand the organization's e-mail list and Facebook presence. Dominique is a really talented performer (even when she's just singing in the shower!), so she's happy to have found a place where her artistic inclinations are able to complement her commitment to doing good. And her enthusiasm for the organization is contagious. Just a few weeks ago, ETM held a wine-and-cheese fundraiser. Dominique reached out to all her friends in the city and was single-handedly responsible for bringing over sixty people to the event.

In terms of size, the Foundation Center is somewhere in between TFA and ETM. And so far, I've worked on a range of projects, from editing audio recordings of special events at the center's New York library, to compiling statistics about attendance at free courses, to researching social media best practices for nonprofits. One of the things I've really enjoyed about my first three months here is that my work includes short-term tasks that produce immediate results as well as bigger projects designed to advance the work of the organization over the longer term.

It's way too soon, of course, to say where our different paths will lead. But it's nice to know that nonprofits come in all shapes and sizes and that our different experiences will provide us with ample opportunity to share stories and learn from each other. It's also nice to know that we all share the same overarching goal: To do a little good in the world and leave it a better place.

-- Reilly Kiernan

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