Reflecting on an incredible summer

This summer, I interned in the Mission Advancement department at Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH), a nonprofit based in Richmond, VA. First and foremost, it gave me a firsthand look at the day to day operations of a well-established nonprofit, through overhearing office conversations between staff members, being physically in the same office with the director of my department every day, attending all-staff and board meetings, and asking lots of questions. But what I most appreciated was interning with Mission Advancement specifically, as the work that it handles applies to all nonprofits, regardless of mission. I have learned so much about strategies in development, nonprofit public relations, donor management, and grant writing. And I will actually be continuing this internship for six hours a week during the semester, so I am really excited to continue to learn and be given greater responsibilities. 

Reflecting on the expectations I set before beginning my internship, I feel as though they were fulfilled to a decent extent. In my Personal Plan Paper, the three areas I was looking for were vague: feel confident in my work, learn a new skill and complete a project. In my Personal Contribution Paper, when I knew where I would be interning, they were slightly more fleshed out: become familiarized with development, gain experience with software, and complete the projects I’d been assigned at the outset.

Because the first expectations were so vague, they were relatively easy to feel as though I accomplished them. In terms of confidence, I know I struck the right balance between confidence and checking in. For most of my projects and assignments, while my boss gave me little direction in how to accomplish them, I knew that he had full confidence that I had the tools to succeed and would succeed. Therefore, I could distinguish between knowing what was beyond my realm of expertise and feeling uncertain. It was really refreshing and definitely helped me enjoy the internship even more. For learning a new skill, I was a blank slate in terms a nonprofit skillset. I’d only ever interned in offices and in capacities focused on constituent affairs, so I hoped that most of my tasks would be in new areas. And in general, they were. For example, one project was to synthesize the various answers to routine grant application questions that had been all saved in GrantHub into one answer. This allowed me to read numerous application answers and get a sense of the language and structure that are expected in (and are successful for) grant applications. And finally, I completed several projects: the GrantHub project, a media research project, an interview project, and reorganized the department share drive. 

The secondary expectations were more specific, so felt less easily checked. For my development-related goal, I learned a lot about many aspects of development, including grant writing, donor management, donor relations, and strategies for outreach. I had zero previous experience in development, so everything I learned was totally new. It was especially helpful to be in the same room as my boss, as I was there when anyone stopped in to ask questions, or if he made a call to our consultant to talk about grant opportunities. He also patiently explained any questions I had about fundraising, grant applications, donor management, or anything that crossed my mind. And because VSH garners tens of thousands of dollars in foundation grants and has a donor database of thousands who range in regular donation amounts of $10-$5,000, it is a well-oiled machine. VSH is very good at keeping in contact with donors and making sure donations are coming in regularly, as well as maintaining even levels of foundational funding. It was incredible for my first experience in development to be with such a successful team. My second goal was to get experience with common nonprofit software. My boss also gave me several opportunities to use Salesforce, giving me a rudimentary level of experience with that platform. While I ended up not actively seeking out using and learning about it more due to wanting to avoid the administrative assistant, I’m glad I at least learned the fundamentals and the layout. I also used Evernote, a note-taking app, and GrantHub. My third and final goal, like my final goal in my Personal Plan, was project-related. At that point I only knew about one project – the interviews – and over the course of the summer I conducted ten interviews with residents at New Clay House and drafted each interview into a story. I’m really proud to have been a part of that process, hear the incredible stories of resilience each resident shared with me, and craft them into pieces to be shared with dignity. I also completed the GrantHub project mentioned above and the media research project, which involved searching media sources (print and TV) for articles mentioning VSH as well as those discussing housing and homelessness more broadly, both regionally and nationwide, and compiling them in Evernote. I really wanted to come out of this internship with completed projects to be able to reference in interviews or cover letters, so I am glad that this goal was accomplished. (860)

In terms of coursework informing experience, I noticed this in several ways. For example, VSH’s mission connected closely to what we discussed in Justice and Civil Society regarding the creation and obligations of a just society. With Dr. Williamson, one of the major lens’ we focused on was the link between poverty and education access, and how it contributes to cycles of poverty. While VSH focuses on a different lens, highlighting how a lack of housing access can play a major role in maintaining these cycles, the underlying reasons and justification are similar. A just society is one that ensures access to basic necessities, like education or housing, to all members. A society that does not is unjust, and thus we have a responsibility to reconstruct society in pursuit of justice. Based on Justice and Civil Society, I could see how VSH is working to put in place the infrastructure that provides housing to those without it, with a particular focus on the most vulnerable: those with substance abuse problems, physical and/or mental disabilities, or coming from deeply impoverished backgrounds. While society at large is not shifting top-down to ensure housing is available to all, VSH is working to transform it through the development and management of properties that on a small scale will transform many folks’ lives here in Virginia. I loved interning with an organization that lived out the principles of social justice and responsibility I learned about in Leadership 205 in such a concrete and measurable way. (1111)

I also connected topics from Theories and Models to my experience at VSH. In one of my guided reflections I noted how differences in personality and likability in my two Mission Advancement colleagues aligns with the respective positions they hold. Chris’ position as the director requires him to interface with, and in an optimal world be liked by, numerous people – coworkers, donors, board members, foundation administrators, members of the press. Therefore, it follows that to be successful in this position, one’s personality plays a significant role. This then ties into contingency theory – while Chris’ extroverted and agreeable personality may make him more successful in this outward-facing, interpersonal skill-dependent position, that does not mean that his personality type ensures leader success regardless of the position. The circumstances definitely play a role in informing the type of leader (and leader personality) that may facilitate success. I feel as though I discounted personality theory during the semester; speaking in abstract terms about personality descriptors, it was hard to conceptualize how differences in personality actually materialize in real life and affect job performance. But now that I’ve noticed it in real life, it makes a lot of sense. 

In terms of my approach, I noticed an interesting connection between the methods I used in my media research project and the argument mapping we used in Critical Thinking. In Critical Thinking, we needed to break the arguments down into their most basic parts and map those parts out so anyone could understand the logic behind how the pieces fit together to reach the conclusion. We even used the examples included in the argument to better illustrate the points being made. For the media project, I needed to devise a complex tagging system for the articles based on their content in order to be able to find them in Evernote. I created one that operated on multiple levels to divide articles into categories based on region and content. In doing so, I prioritized logic and clarity, to make sure anyone adding articles to Evernote could easily understand how the system worked. When I created the tag guide, I even included example articles to demonstrate how and when particular tags were used. Chris commented several times on its detail and clarity and that he appreciated how easy to follow it was. I attribute my ability to create such a coherent system to the critical thinking skills I honed in that class!