“Interfaith is profitable.” Or, misadventures in the nonprofit industrial complex.

One requirement of my graduate program was that I take an internship. Somehow, through means that remain mysterious to me even now, I landed an internship that described itself as “highly competitive.”

The organization was in downtown Chicago. Among other civic activities, it promoted interfaith understanding. The organization was funded, or so I understood, by a group of businesspeople from the founder’s home country. To finalize our arrangements, they requested I come in for a chat.

I rode the Metra into the Loop. Upon disembarking, I sought out the unfamiliar address among a cluster of gunmetal-gray skyscrapers. I entered one that, as I saw, was home to a local television station. The security guard waved me through a metal detector. He then affixed a paper bracelet with a time stamp to my wrist. 

I had a choice of several elevators that all looked ready to sweep me upward to power lunches where steaks were served. I boarded one and went up twenty floors, then thirty, then forty. When the doors opened, I was in a hall of marble and plate glass that offered a stupendous view of the city and the lake. To be in this corridor was to have made it.

I turned left down the corridor, searching for the nonprofit. Instead I found a foreign consulate. I kept walking and found another foreign consulate, and then a corporate consultancy. Strolling back the other way, I passed one or two more foreign consulates before reaching the lobby I sought. All the lobbies had the same aesthetic: fine gold lettering on glass doors, an “Ikea for CEOs” decor within.

The nonprofit’s glass door eased shut behind me. All was silent and abandoned, the postmodern Scandinavian furniture occupied by nobody. A woman in a business suit then appeared, as if from the walls themselves. Speaking in a hushed tone that did not seem to emerge from her in particular, but rather from the air in general, she asked who I was there to see. I gave her the name of the internship supervisor, with whom I had exchanged emails. Still seemingly encased in vinyl soundproofing, she sailed off to look for him.

The supervisor greeted me and ushered me into a room that, save for the terrazzo floor and chrome walls, consisted entirely of glass. Glass desk with glass legs. Turkish tea, served in a glass. More giant windows, conveying a lordly 180-degree view of the City That Works. I gazed down at the top of the Wrigley Building, watched ant-like cars creep up and down Michigan Avenue, while the supervisor told me what I would be doing. I would advertise interfaith gatherings to university students and sign them up to attend. It was, he explained, work-from-home kind of stuff. I wouldn’t be in the building very much. I nodded with relief.

He asked me if I would, even so, like a tour of the premises. I accepted. He led me through more glass galleries, along more marble walls, past more Scandinavian chairs and desks, and over to a group of shy, well-dressed interns seated before giant computer screens. Every room offered a panorama of skyscrapers, or of the lakefront. At one point, as if suddenly aware of the effect our surroundings were having on me, the supervisor turned to me and announced with a chuckle: “Interfaith is profitable.” I chuckled, too. But a shiver went down my spine.

Emerging back into consensus reality, on the street forty floors below, I felt like I needed a drink. I wondered how long I would last with these people. It wasn’t very long at all.

My supervisor was a terrible communicator when it came to answering my emails. He let one or two weeks go by in between. But when it came to what he wanted, his emails contained crisp, staccato directions. For example, on less than a week’s notice, could I kindly see to it that at least ten people from my graduate school attend a suit-and-tie dinner the organization was holding? Remember, at least ten. Also, at my entire convenience, could I secure a donation from my graduate school? The organization would be happy with twenty-five hundred dollars.

I forwarded these emails to one of my faculty advisors. My advisor in turn sharply complained to the organization. And then the emails, such as they were, faded away. I did not quit my internship, nor was I dismissed from it. It died. I couldn’t give you a date when it ended. It was somewhere in the middle of that autumn.

*****

Perhaps this nonprofit did great work when I wasn’t looking. Perhaps the grand dinners and thousand-dollar donations (“interfaith is profitable”) brought many people together who would not otherwise connect. And perhaps, in this way, it made gentler both Chicago and the world. I did know other people who were associated with this nonprofit. They were people whom I respected. They did not do things that wasted their time, if they could help it.

Yet for me (and I realize I can only speak for myself, though in some ways I suspect my experience is indicative), the nonprofit was the latest in a string of such places that I was inevitably glad to have done with. It was, admittedly, the only one among them that outright gave me the creeps. But all of them, including the more modest and indeed hole-in-the-wall establishments where I spent most of my nonprofit career, did share another unenviable quality. I could never figure out what it was exactly that they did.

I knew all of their mission statements, more or less. I wrote blogs, zines, and newsletter articles on their behalf. I entered donations into their computer systems. I sent out correspondence on their letterheads. One of them, the profitable interfaith nonprofit that is the subject of this blog post, even sent me forth to strip-mine my colleagues of their money. And, when they ceased contact, I scrambled to replace them with another nonprofit, because I still needed an internship. For them, the final nonprofit so far that I have served, I spent a year managing their web and social media platforms.

But for all these organizations, if you had asked me what it was our work ultimately supported—what concrete effects we had, and on whom—I would never have been able to get beyond the platitudes. We reform the church. We work for justice. We promote understanding and dialogue. It’s an ongoing effort. Your dollars, given in greater or lesser quantities, support this effort. And so on. I had phone calls where I said these kinds of things. Sometimes I could feel my words whooshing off into deep space, never making landfall with my interlocutors.

Now, I get it: people have to get up and go to work. And working in some way, however vague, to change the world does often represent a more reflective choice than the naked, unabashed lining of your wallet. Even then, especially in the urban world where the trade in jobs and internships is as closely guarded as the old trade in gold and spices, you must take whatever is available. It’s what you do, and I did. I did it more than once.

But what I would suggest—particularly for other Millennials like myself who are community-minded, who are thinking in terms of careers, and who have options—is to focus more on “small,” local, concrete forms of engagement. There, you are more likely to do human things with human beings. After years of looking to great activists and great journalists as my models, my new models for “changing the world” are my wife’s employers. They have been married for almost forty years and are small-business owners. They run for, and win, village offices in the same town where they grew up. They support various charities. You can see their effects in the sidewalks they get repaired, in the library wings they get built, and in the elementary schools they get renovated.

It is not glamorous. It is not part of a great movement. But it is real. You can touch it. It is a very brick-and-mortar children’s library wing, after all, in which my stepson now plays Legos and gets his robot books. And it is a very brick-and-mortar school where, next year, he will enter first grade. Above all, this is a lifestyle that stays far away from mysterious donations for mysterious purposes, far away from such absurdities as “interfaith is profitable.”

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