Finding passion for non-profits

Two years ago an energetic college student wished to seek involvement in her community, and turned online for help.  On campus, downtown or across Athens, the location was irrelevant; she simply wanted to gain more productivity from her spare time. 

She found Common Ground Athens, a local non-profit organization dedicated to bringing “progressive social change” through the connection of volunteers with local causes.  Her early involvement began with volunteering two days a week, and gathered momentum through co-founding the organization’s first internship program, the Common Ground Internship Consortium.  Her role finally reached its peak when she gained a 30-hour a week directorship. 

Jenna Moon, a University of Georgia senior and veteran of the six-year-old non-profit organization in downtown Athens, is one of many students involved with the local non-profit sector. 

During her years of service, Moon has balanced work with academics to achieve a comprehensive college experience.  Currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work, Moon has gleaned valuable, first-hand insight into the tumultuous world of non-profits; something she hopes to one day pursue professionally.  While her story is unique in its progression, her pursuit of real-world experience is not. 

Many students pursue extra experience pertaining to their major, whether it be outside the classroom or through a curriculum based work-study program.  According to the 2008 UGA National Survey of Student Engagement Report, 92 percent of seniors participated or planned to participate in community service or volunteer work; a rise from 88 percent in 2005. 

Eighty-nine percent of seniors responding to the survey were pursuing an internship, while only 35 percent worked on a research project with a faculty member outside of the required coursework.  Despite the high percentages of participation, only 36 percent reported to have had a “culminating senior experience”. 

While many students find maintaining jobs and grades problematic, Moon attributes her success to her co-workers and the organization’s understanding of her academics.  As director, her contract was structured to increase in hours and pay as she gained experience and transitioned into her role. 

“ I have a great board that is really supportive,” Moon said.  “Basically I have a different sort of contract.  That was set up that way on purpose when my contract was created, and the pay goes up with the increase of hours, so that’s really helpful.  It helps me kind of ease into it.” 

The position was created due to a need for further organization, and Moon was asked to hold its inaugural chair.  She accepted and became the first paid employee of Common Grounds. 

Less than a year later, she was relieved of her role. 

While great at providing grassroots opportunities to local organizations, the crux of the non-profit sector remains high turnover and inconsistent cash flow.  With a non-profit status, many organizations rely solely on personal and professional donations, often from members or corporate sponsors and boosters.  Others qualify for grants, and receive funding for various projects and initiatives. 

According to Johanna Nicol, a board member at Common Grounds since 2005, the organization missed several opportunities to apply for and receive federal grants, a leading factor in the abolishment of the director’s position. 

 “Jenna has been a surprise to a lot of people,” Nicol said.  “Even up until a month ago many people on the board didn’t know she was only was 20.  That’s a testament to how professionally she presented herself.” 

 “The last two to three months there have been growing conversation to remove the position.  I think it was gracefully handled, and was even a relief by both parties,” Nicol said. 

According to Nicol, Common Ground is currently transitioning from an organization that not only provides a connection between volunteers and progressive organizations, but as an establishment pursuing its own projects.  While still in the brainstorming stages, Nicol feels the upcoming changes in board members will help bring new ideas to the table, especially when she steps down this August. 

Because of the trend of heightened turnover common to eneral community organizations, these non-profits are forced to re-invent themselves in accordance to the “general community vibe”.  As the opinions and culture of a community grows, so too must the non-profits for survival’s sake. 

 Traditionally Common Ground has been most appealing to 16 to 30-year-olds with interests from entrepreneurship to various forms of progressive change.  Nicol would like to see clientele come to scheduled events and various activities held in and around the building.  She feels that the location is not defined as a place of activity, and hopes additional improvements will encourage a strong cast of clients and volunteers.  Arts and crafts, community dinners and sponsored shows are all potential events.  

 Although removed from her former position, Moon remains a volunteer at Common Ground, and has plans to continue.  With many of her previous responsibilities now delegated to others, she has time to focus on finishing school and possibly pursue a masters degree in social work.

 “I really love what Common Ground does, not to sound cheesy here.  I really do enjoy the work that I do here,” Moon said.

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