When the program first began, I was astounded at how long the program was. In comparison to other DukeEngage programs that usually last for eight weeks, this adventure of a lifetime lasted for ten weeks. As we approach the last few days, I honestly wish it was longer. I’ve learned so, so much not only about Durham, NC, Durham, UK, and the nonprofit internships that I was fortunate enough to be placed at, but have also gained newfound friendships, realizations, and unforgettable memories.
I expected to learn a lot from my internships. But I was not prepared to realize the absolute dearth of knowledge that I had about local nonprofits compared to my superiors, who have dedicated the better of their lives to serving others. It was an extremely humbling experience to learn about the daily operations of my internship sites (Threshold in NC and Waddington Street Centre in the UK), participate in the activities of their members, get to know the members personally, hear their stories, learn about their interests, experiences, and what Threshold/Waddington Street Centre has done for them. I was also informed of the difficulties that each nonprofit faced, whether it was the cut in their funding from the federal government in the US, drug usage within the center, violence and dangerous in the area, a lack of a guarantee of stable funding from local authorities, encouraging various members to participate in provided activities, and more.
As the weeks passed and I became more and more familiar with my internship sites, I realized that the problems that these nonprofits face stem from issues that are deeply ingrained in each communities’ history. Severe and complicated problems such as gentrification and racism affects Durham, NC while Waddington Street Centre grapples with the extreme mental illness epidemic in Durham, UK which can in some ways be linked to their now obsolete mining industry. The generally unsteady support that each of these nonprofits receive from the government in their respective countries doesn’t help to ameliorate the financial concerns of those running the nonprofits. They really do appreciate the support expressed by various local authorities, but they are in constant worry that their funding might somehow be slashed (further) and that they’ll have to dip into reserves or turn to another solution so that they’ll still be able to serve their members in the coming years. These nonprofits are heavily dependent on sources of funding that are not guaranteed, and to me is a clear demonstration of the fact that the nonprofit sector is often not prioritized by authorities who have the power to aid them in accomplishing their honorable goals to serve their communities. The more I learn about the way that the nonprofit sector is so dependent on funding from either the local authorities or federal lawmakers, the more I realize the extent of the backwardness of priorities in society. Instead of lifting up the people who need support from their communities and their countries the most, we push them into the corner and make them dependent on people who are voted into office who’s opinions and actions can be easily swayed by money—something that nonprofits don’t have a surplus of and are often asking for.
In high school, I was heavily involved with an international nonprofit called UNICEF and served on the UNICEF National Council my senior year. I advocated for UNICEF’s annual funding from the federal government on Capitol Hill twice and saw how lawmakers oftentimes wouldn’t make time to see their constituents face to face. I understand that lawmakers are very busy, but during my two years advocating for UNICEF on Capitol Hill, I never once got to meet any Senator from Ohio, or any of the Representatives whose offices I visited. I can’t help but wonder if they would’ve done the same to a large corporation that might’ve offered something tantalizing to the Senator/Representative in exchange for their support. Their interns promised that their bosses would definitely seriously consider supporting our cause, but the fact that each year, UNICEF has to encourage hundreds of its advocates—students, donors, and the like—to fly to Washington, D.C. to urge lawmakers to prioritize the lives of children around the world (including the US!), is quite sobering. It highlights the fact that nonprofit organizations that strive to do good, even ones as credible, established, and large as UNICEF, are extremely dependent on support from other sectors to keep their operations running when other sectors are not nearly as dependent or dependent at all on the nonprofit sector. Enormous amounts of funding for large nonprofits, mid-sized nonprofits, and small nonprofits are all at the mercy of the private and public sector, among other contributors to their functioning.
The conflict between the nonprofit sector, the private sector, and the government is a serious problem in America and there is no clear resolution in sight. However, this merely emphasizes the clear idea that any positive action of any magnitude still matters because a step in the right direction is still a step in the right direction—it isn’t a step backwards. I hope that one day, instead of dragging our feet slowly and limping towards a better society while sometimes taking a leap backwards, our society will be able to start running towards ameliorating the serious issues that plague our communities. But in the meantime, nonprofits such as Threshold and Waddington Street Centre are addressing serious issues within their communities and doing their absolute best with the resources that they have and their work is most definitely pushing society quickly in the right direction.