Matthew Komatsu | Why I Joined (Another Non-Profit Board)

I’ve been thinking lately about the role of literary non-profit organizations (NPOs). NPOs in general are near and dear to my heart: my wife and I have been involved in some form or fashion with a variety of NPOs for the past eight years. But let’s be honest. NPOs, especially the small ones, are filled with do-gooders trying to do too much with too little. Cash, time, resources: all short supplies at any small NPO.  That isn’t to take anything away from them. Their missions are valuable. They wouldn’t exist they weren’t.

But it can be a bit herculean. I joined my first volunteer board of directors a few years ago and it was an eye-opening experience. Not one paid staffer, anything that got done was purely volunteerism. It was humbling to see what could be done by a bunch of like-minded folks pulling in the same direction. But as much as we accomplished, there was always something else. Like owning a home, there was a never-ending list of things that could be done.

Sustainability is a word you hear often in the NPO world, and not just fiscal sustainability, either. Resources. In an NPO, it’s a toss-up whether your most precious resource is money or people. I tend towards the latter because no amount of money thrown at a problem can address a need without the folks to figure things out in the first place. And if we’re talking about sustaining people and their time as resources, then what we’re talking about is avoiding burnout.

Three to five years. That’s the average tenure of a NPO’s executive director. Reasons for the high attrition are manifold, but burnout is just one among many. And if you think 49 Writers is immune, just do a little homework and you’ll find our turnover rate has either met or undercut the national average.

Well isn’t this post a bummer, you’re probably thinking. But bear with me; we can’t wish away the hard realities. An additional factor with a literary NPO is that they of course tend to hire writers because if your job is to serve the writing community, wouldn’t you want a writer at the helm? Trouble is, now they’re serving writers but probably not getting much writing of their own done. And yet they choose to make the sacrifice.

In my line of work, we do our best to honor the sacrifices of others. Sometimes it’s a quiet word of thanks. Other times it’s a grand ceremony, and the pinning of medals and ribbons. But it’s hard to do something concrete in return.

This is not the case with NPOs. There are plenty of ways to give back. Money is of course, one way. But getting back to that earlier point about precious resources, I believe time is an even greater option. Which is why despite leaving one board over a lack of time, I chose to join another.

When they chose to give life to Danger Close: Alaska, 49 Writers gave me a tremendous opportunity to serve a cross-section of Alaskan writers who’d never been heard. So on one hand, I owe them. But on the other hand, I believe in what 49 Writers is doing. Strongly. And that’s the real reason I joined the board. To give back to folks like Erin Hollowell and now Jeremy Pataky, so they can give more Matt Komatsuto Alaskan writers.

So that’s it. That’s why I joined. Nothing earth shattering, just another do-gooder back in the ranks. I’m down to make some things happen if you are.

49 Writers board member Matthew Komatsu is a third year MFA Candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and full time Alaska Air National Guardsman. The viewpoints here are his alone and you can find more of his unsolicited opinions on Twitter: @matthew_komatsu.

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