In January, I passed a major milestone.
Twenty-five years ago, I first started working at Plant With Purpose. At the time, I never imagined that I would stay in one job for so long. It was a temporary job, part-time actually, and I was hoping to get some experience while I looked for something else.
It was exciting to get a foot in the door with an organization that served the poor and in a place where I could use my Spanish language skills. However, the environmental aspects of the work were not something that I was particularly excited about. Nonetheless, living in San Diego, I did not have a lot of organizations to choose from. Thus, my connection to Christian environmental stewardship is an accident of geography as much as anything else. However, as I learned about the intimate connection between the land and those who depend on it for their daily sustenance, I have grown passionate about the urgent need to care for the earth that God has entrusted to us. In a very short period of time I realized that I would not be happy working for an organization that didn’t address stewardship of the land as a key part of its mission.
Still, twenty-five years is a long time. I frequently get asked how I could stay in the same job for so long, and how I keep from getting burned out.
The answer to the first question is that the organization has changed dramatically since 1993, and every few years I have had to adapt my job to match and lead through the next stage of growth. In the early days, I was the Program Manager (actually Interim Program Manager for the first six months) so I handled much of the direct liaison with our field partners. As one of only two employees, I also did things like stuff envelopes, buy our first computers and fix the printer when it wasn’t working. And on the side I began reading everything I could about Christian ministry, nonprofit management, ecology, and community development. I also began reaching out to my peers to learn all I could from them.
As we began to grow, or rather when I saw that we weren’t growing, I realized that I had a very important role in fundraising. I fought that change for a long time – too long – until I began to understand that fundraising is ministry too. We hired people with expertise in international development who were far more skilled at program development and working with our international partners, so I took on more of a management role and my international travel diminished significantly. More recently, as we expanded beyond a support base primarily centered in Southern California and hired Regional Representatives, my domestic travel has grown to fill in the gap. Finally, as we have broadened our fundraising capacity, I have had the opportunity to take on more speaking and writing opportunities, and think more about the vision and strategy of Plant With Purpose in the years ahead. Each of these shifts has involved new learning and new challenges, keeping the job fresh.
As to what keeps me going, a couple of answers come to mind. The testimonies of the people we serve and the privilege of seeing God at work in the world has been a huge factor. Amazing things are happening. Another is the fact that we keep getting better at what we do. We have a commitment to accurate measurement of our impact and to continuous improvement. As a result, what we are doing to change lives today is much more effective than it was ten or even three years ago. Furthermore, we have learned how to do it in a way that is scalable. Half of all the trees we have ever planted have been planted in the last four years. We have doubled the number of people we are serving in the last three years with relatively little increase in budget. Personally, I am more excited today than I have ever been, because I can quantify our work and see the change.
Throughout the last twenty-five years I have made shocking mistakes, gained valuable lessons, and realized that what we do is a lot harder than I imagined it would be. All the while, the world we work in continues to change. I am hoping to take some time this spring to reflect on some of these lessons, changes and even mistakes, as well as remember some of the people who have made this work possible.