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Not God's Work

In 1982 I decided to become a human services professional. Starting as the Deputy Director of Boston’s Head Start program and concluding my career as the President/CEO of The Home for Little Wanderers, I enjoyed a wonderful and fulfilling 37-year career of service. Throughout my career, but especially during my 15 years as the President/CEO of the Home for Little Wanderers, donors, board members, and supporters, frequently would say to me (in admiration) that “I was doing God’s work”. Whenever said, I understood that person’s meaning and I knew that it was intended to be a compliment and an affirmation of my perceived contribution to the people served by the organization. I knew that the sentiment, not articulated, was one that suggested I had made laudable sacrifices to do the work I was doing. And that I had foregone the attractive compensation that was available to me had I chosen to be a corporate lawyer, or surgeon, or financial services professional.

While understandable, deep down in my gut, I did not like it. In addition to the paternalistic sound of the statement, I also found that many of those saying it frequently failed to appreciate the full breadth and depth of what was required to serve people in need well. They were often people on the political end of the spectrum that supported very little of the public policy, regulation, or practice improvements that served poor people. They relished in the donation they may have given and thought of themselves as very generous, but were they asked to stand up for an increase in the minimum wage, or healthcare for all, or safe and affordable housing that is lead and rodent free, in communities that should be safe from drugs and guns, they could not be counted on; and were in fact quietly against those things and did not see them as fundamental rights. Several also felt that the advocacy by the organization in support of those policies that favored the people served, was not the job of the organization. The sentiment communicated was “just serve the kids and stay away from all of that “other stuff”. That expressed sentiment was especially prominent at the end of my tenure at The Home for Little Wanderers, and I found it stifling and a limit to doing my job fully.

I was heartened by the “God’s work” statement, to the extent that I knew it meant that my work and contributions were going to hold me in good stead at the entrance to the “Pearly Gates” when that time did come. But I did not come to work each day on a religious mission, and neither did the many people I worked with in the non-profit service sector except for perhaps those working in church supported organizations. I in no way mean to disparage those who do perform God’s work; or are motivated by a religious calling. Or for whom the work they do is part of their commitment to faith. And over the years, I was glad to partner with church leaders on the range of issues about which they and we were concerned. But I did know that our motivations for doing the work were different from one another and that was fine.

I also felt some making the statement were missing a few very important realities. The first was that I, and the many others with whom I worked, were well educated, credentialed professionals doing the work because it is what we chose, not because we could not do anything else; we did the work we did because we were motivated and committed to the mission of the organization. While we knew that we would not get rich on the job, we did expect our compensation and employee benefits to be solid and enable us to live and care for ourselves and our families. My experience was that several of those who thought I was doing “God’s work” also saw their involvement with the endeavor as their own way of doing God’s work too. Not a bad thing necessarily, unless, as some were, unable to see the bigger picture and unable to appreciate the important role of the organization as an advocate for the people served. It was our role to help promulgate the policies that created the environment for our children and families served to care for themselves and achieve success at the same time provide direct services to them.

In 1982 I decided to become a human service professional and am committed to shedding a light on the human services sector with all its triumphs, challenges, frustrations and satisfaction, and to share what I learned. Like myself, thousands of people work in this sector that serves children and families, elders, the disabled, and the homeless. It is critical to lift up those of us who did choose to work in the non-profit human services sector; and highlight both the joys and the complexities of the work. Let me thank the hundreds, albeit thousands, of people who have come to work as I had for 37 years to do our best, most well trained, and skilled work in service to others.

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