This evening I attended my first Finance Committee meeting for Project Homecoming, a local non-profit whose mission is broadly defined as building resilient neighborhoods in New Orleans. The charity emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a faith-based initiative to organize volunteers from out of state who wanted to help with recovery and rebuilding. Their mission has evolved as the needs of the city have changed, however, and they currently promote community development and sustainable construction through support for owner-led renovations and construction of affordable homes on abandoned or blighted lots. In addition to this sort of physical aid, they run a workforce development program that provides tools and construction training to unemployed and underemployed locals so they can pursue stable careers and contribute to their communities.
If you had told me even a year ago that I would be involved with such an amazing group today I would probably have said you were crazy. I always assumed that people who did non-profit operations were high-level donors or volunteers who had worked their way up in the organization. This (unfounded) view made it feel impossible for me to get involved in the wider community: as a graduate student and then as a visiting assistant professor, my time and especially my money were extremely tight. For the most part, then, I ended up doing nothing. What little volunteering I did do as an admissions interviewer for Georgetown entailed just a few hours each year and was focused on an area where I had preexisting ties and relevant experience.
So what changed in my outlook and situation that allowed this to happen? First and foremost I fell in love with New Orleans. I don’t need to rehash that story here, but my desire to support the city more directly grew in measure with my attachment to it, and over time I found fewer and fewer reasons not to get involved. By the time this good opportunity presented itself, I was ready to jump.
The networking I did around the city also primed me for this change. Since March of 2015 I have conducted 2-3 informational interviews each month as a way to learn about new areas and establish contact with important people around town. For those who are unfamiliar, the process of asking for an informational interview is easy: you do some research online, identify somebody who has a job you think you might want to do, and email to invite them for a coffee to ask about how they got there. While I was initially terrified to make this sort of cold-contact, I was constantly amazed by the willingness of people to sit down with me and share the details of how they had progressed in their careers. More often than not these meetings would end with the person giving me a few more people to contact, and sometimes an introductory email to break the ice.
Enrolling in night classes also contributed to this development, but going back to school was not something I was eager to do when I first considered it at the end of 2015. I had only finished my Ph.D. in 2014, and was aware that taking night classes likely meant I was turning away from Classics for good. Despite the height of those particular psychological hurdles, I eventually came to see the potential benefits of developing a few hard skills far outweighed the costs and risks–especially since Tulane offered faculty members a tuition waiver for one class a semester. So in January 2016 I enrolled in Statistics, and followed that up with courses in Finance, Management, and (currently) Business Law.
Okay, so what does all of this have to do with volunteering in the community? Well, my finance professor last summer was an adjunct who works for a local investment bank, and I kept in touch with him after the course ended. We connected on LinkedIn, grabbed lunches when we could, and conversed every month or so via email. He eventually developed a sense of the type of work I would be good at and began keeping his eyes open for things around town that might be a good fit. A few paid opportunities didn’t pan out, but his work serving as treasurer for Project Homecoming meant he was among the first to know when a position opened up on their finance committee. At that point everything fell into place. He knew looping me in would allow me to gain practical experience working on a non-profit’s financial strategy, while Project Homecoming would gain a new volunteer eager to get more involved in the local community.
So my work with Project Homecoming didn’t happen from any concerted effort to help out that particular charity. Instead it was the culmination of efforts that stretched back over a year and a half. If I hadn’t taken Finance, I would never have met my professor. But if I hadn’t been conducting informational interviews, I wouldn’t have known how to maintain that relationship. And of course if I hadn’t ended up in New Orleans, the impulse to reach beyond myself and help this extraordinary community may well have remained dormant. In short, you never know how your efforts are going to pay off, or how they’re going to come together. But if you put yourself out there consistently, and work hard to maintain the connections you establish, eventually you can start to gain some traction.