What value, the nonprofit work?

The following is an excerpt from an email from the CEO of a nonprofit in Singapore, reproduced with permission:

“We have much to be thankful for this week. Several people who had participated in our programmes visited us with offers of help. A 28-yr-old mother who is gradually experiencing some stability in her life offered to give free facial treatments to the mothers residing in her neighbourhood. She is now living elsewhere but wanted to do something for the people who supported her and her children when she was in difficulty.
A young man in his 30s dropped by with his fiancé asking if our reception area was still called the Peace Café. He was showing his fiancé where he lived as a child and the places where he hung out. We told him that it is now called Café Beyond and we chatted a little about his experiences here. As he left, he told us that he will be seeing us again as he will be registering as a volunteer on http://www.beyondself.sg.”
A younger man in his early 20s who had “worked” at Café Beyond also dropped by on his day-off. He was a resident of a home we used to run and is now working at a restaurant at the Marina Bay Sands. He came by offering to link our members to opportunities at his workplace.
Finally, there was also another in his 30s who rode his motor-bike right up to our door-step with his fiancé riding pillion.  He had come after work and was still in his overalls. He services the lifts and escalators at Changi Airport and is deeply grateful for the life he is having now. He told me that he woke up one morning last week thinking of us and decided that he had to visit. He recounted that as a rebellious teenager he had been in trouble a few times and wasted quite a bit of precious time. He left us a small donation and said that he will be visiting again to explore volunteering opportunities.

I always look forward to hearing from this nonprofit, Beyond Social Services. I am familiar with their work with troubled youths and their families, and I know how challenging the work is. Challenging, not because the people they serve are problematic, but because most of us find it hard to imagine and appreciate how life takes a different path for some people, and we have a tendency to hold them against some conventional standard. It’s also challenging because for many of the youths, their families, friends and communities may have long given up on them.

Despite their challenges, with the support of nonprofits like Beyond, many of these youths eventually find their paths in life. Their stories struck me, because they have gone from being outcasts of society to being active contributors, and they have gone from being receivers to givers. Their gifts may be simple: a small donation here, a little contribution there. The monetary value may not be huge, but the transformation and the intangible value is.

A friend recently sent me an article about “10X programmers” in Silicon Valley. These are programmers who are 10 times more productive than their peers. In the same breath, my friend asked whether 10X efficiency was possible in service sectors especially public service.

I don’t have a good answer, but I suspect it will not be found using the same perspectives and thought processes we are familiar with in the for-profit world. Perhaps a 10X social worker is not so much one who can work at 10 times the speed of others, or who can create a product that can be sold at 10 times the price of others. Perhaps a 10X social worker is more towards someone who can, through his/her sincerity, passion and skills, inspire and turnaround even the most troubled youths that the rest of society has given up on?

Or, might that even be 100X?


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