Compass: Construction job has lessons for nonprofits

Why does the news of a whaling commission embezzlement scandal draw my attention in this way? The story stands out, amidst all the other bad news. I read the story without the rose colored glasses I normally see through. It felt significant. This kind of thing goes on in nearly all of our neighborhoods, where grant or government money plays a large role in society. Most of the time we become numb, or indifferent to it. We figure it's just the way it is. But once in awhile, when we catch news of it, or have to leave a job because of it, or a friend, we feel the real implications. And become unsettled by it. As we should be.

For nearly two decades I wrote grants, managed programs, carried out projects, and worked within the publicly funded fields. I worked for tribes, community development groups, and various nonprofits. All grant funded. I have had mixed feelings because, on one hand, that has been my source of income and experience. But on the other hand, I have seen a lot of holes in nearly all of the systems that I've worked within and with. I see a lot of money coming in, and very little outreach and real change in the community at large.

Sometimes it seems like the money that flows into our publicly funded organizations becomes dammed. It should be blessed and then sent to circulate (in the form of services) out in society. But instead it often becomes like a still pond, subject to all sorts of foul matter. Maybe some people are allowed to stay in their positions once they've stagnated. Maybe the councils and boards are not well trained enough, or confident in their ability to run their organizations. Maybe the community has slowly become disconnected, and does not get involved. It is a part of the disease that is affecting rural Alaska at a deep level.

I would love to see our public organizations thrive. Each organization that is granted funding from the American people, all the way to the white house, could be like light houses in our nation. In our communities, cities, and states. If there were not a real need for certain types of support and help, these organizations would not exist. But we need real and skilled human beings to run them. And we need to see real results.

I recently had the good fortune to work on a building construction crew. It was a major departure from the work I was used to doing -- I loved it. There was no emotional drama, which is prevalent in many "helping" organizations. Everyone had the same design in mind, and each person did their part to make it happen. A strong work ethic was demonstrated by the entire crew, which I appreciated. There were no extended meetings, catered lunches or extensive travel. We were on site, getting the job done.

Inspectors came through often, at different stages of development. We couldn't proceed until we met certain standards, or made the recommended changes. If a mistake was made, or something had to be changed, no one tried to diminish it or cover it over with words. Action was taken to make it right. I learned a lot from that job, and think that our publicly funded organizations could too.

I believe that there are some fabulous foundations and community organizations that are doing good work in their communities. Some organizations have true leaders that know how to hold the vision of the community, and act with integrity. From what I've seen, they seem to be in the minority. I hope that our community organizations will get it together while the getting is good. Let's use this money wisely while it is here. Let's put it to good use in our communities, so it can be multiplied and made more.

Chantelle Pence is a consultant (Copper River Consulting) and a writer. She lives in Chistochina with her husband and three sons.