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Sunday, April 21, 2002

My Lowest Ebb: Money for Nuthin'

The Half-Mad Spinster has asked her blogging pals to share their own "lowest ebb stories," like in the latest issue of the magazine The New Yorker, which has stories of bottom-hitting by famous folks like Stephen King and not-so-famous ones.

Here's my lowest ebb:

I graduated with degrees in English and French from a liberal arts college, which qualified me to do very little in the workplace. I sent out hundreds of resumes, but nobody much was hiring.

Finally, I got a bite. A non-profit, social services agency wanted to talk to me about a job in its grant-writing and communications department. In essence, I’d be getting money for and telling the world about all sorts of programs that help disadvantaged people get out of poverty.

Hey, a job…and one that helps my fellow humans? What could be better for an idealistic 22-year-old!

My first day consisted of a four-hour long staff meeting in which two arguments broke out, like something out of a bad situation comedy. I sat there in my tie, neatly taking notes, thinking analytically like I’d been taught at the oil company where I’d interned. At the end of the staff meeting, one attendee jokingly asked, “So, are you coming back to work tomorrow?”

I kept getting more comments like that. The employees there were convinced that I’d quit and go back where I came from. But I couldn’t, because I didn’t have anything to go back to.

Secret Agent Stuff
I was informed that I was not supposed to tell anyone outside the agency about what I did there. Most of the agency’s money came from the federal government, whose funding agencies banned paying for grantees to use grant writers and PR people.

I started writing grant proposals, sections of which ask the agency to list which of its own resources it will devote to the project. I discovered that the same person was often committed to spend 50 percent of his or her time on EACH of about six different projects. It was an Arthur Andersen type math.

I also found out that the agency was claiming the value of its office space, which was in an old bowling alley across from a housing project and next to the “Booker T. Washington Liquor Store,” was equal to prime real estate in the city’s financial area downtown.

Add the value of employees working 30 hours a day to prime real estate, and before you know, the agency was coming to the table with hundreds of thousands of dollars of “in-kind donation value.” Consider that the agency can write in an “administrative overhead” fee of something 10 percent of the total value of the project (government money plus in-kind donation money), and you have a recipe for generating a lot of cash to do whatever with—directly related to the project or not.

I discovered some records indicating the agency had some debt it was working to pay down, primarily by generating that administrative overhead money.

I discussed some of this with my dad, who’s a financial analyst, and he said if were in charge of their books, he would not certify them.

Add to that the managing director’s mantra, “Screw the funding source.”

Different Isn't Good
I also got word of flack coming from other people working at the agency. They didn’t like the three of us working in the communications department because, well, we were all white (and two-thirds male), and most of the staff and clients weren’t. They called us “The Pretty People.”

The one woman working in our department used to ask me to escort her to the bathroom, because during particularly busy periods, the hallway would be packed with clients. They used to harass her—offer her money for sex and such. She wasn’t sleazy at all. She was married, wore a ring and was doing her job.

During these busy periods, the staff would start to lose patience with clients, who didn’t like filling out the forms. Even with they were offered help, they wanted to watch TV in the waiting room or flip through magazines. It wasn’t unusual to hear a staffer blow his top once or twice a day.

Of course, not all clients were like that. The really heart-breaking ones were the ones who came as entire families—Mom, Dad, the kids, asking for money for medical treatment or so they wouldn’t be kicked out of their apartments. I’d get sent these people after two or three other staffers decided there was nothing they could do, so why not send them to me?

There was nothing I could do. I wrote proposals for big programs that helped a selected group of people, not individual cases. All I could do is send these families to a referral agency, which would send them to yet someone else who may or may not be able to help.

Occasionally I brought up the idea of polling our clients to see if we could tailor some programs to help them. I was told, “We don’t do that” and “We tailor our programs to the funding source.”

Volunteer Your Cash
I’d also get calls from members of the community who wanted to volunteer at the agency. I’d suggest they speak with a program administer, but soon found out they already did and had been forwarded to me.

I thought, “Hey, I could come up with a volunteer program!” At the next four-hour staff meeting, I brought up my idea (strategically mentioned early in the day, before the inevitable fights started) and passed around a sheet for people to list what areas they needed volunteer help with. Next week, I asked for the sheet. No one had filled it in. Same thing the week after that.

So, here we were, asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars for programs that poor people desperately needed, but we couldn’t come up with a single part-time position for a concerned citizen wanting to help.

This was bad PR. We were essentially asking the public to pay us through tax money, keep their noses out of our business and find something else to do with their spare time.

The “auditors” used to make sure the programs were carried out as advertised were hired by our agency. The less problems they found with our programs, the more likely we were to hire them for more auditing work.

I was starting to feel bad about myself and what I did for a living. It was becoming clear to me that the organization I worked for was more interested in keeping its own people employed than in actually helping clients--most of whom were at the end of their rope. They didn't exactly have a lot of other options to exercise, so our motivation to actually serve their end need was limited at best.

My immediate supervisor reflectively voiced the same concern on his way out. He quit to “help his wife get her new business going.” Within six months, he had another job.

My next immediate supervisor was no picture of stability. He’d been molested as a child and met his wife at the drug rehab center where he’d done a stint.

One day he informed me that a team of funding source inspectors were coming in to examine several things, and he asked me to disavow my involvement in certain projects, if asked.

This CIA crap was really getting to me. Over the course of the next couple of months, by supervisor and I had some cross words. I resigned, probably a few weeks ahead of getting canned.

I made sure to photocopy scads of incriminating documents, in case I needed them.

The next two people who held my position lasted six months, less than half time I stayed on.

I freelanced for a while, earning so little money I had to turn the heat down low enough to see my breath in the mornings.

On my way to a job interview, I totaled my car. (I got my sleeve caught in the gear shift and threw it into park at 70 miles per hour. I hit rock embankments on both sides of the road before skidding to a stop. Miraculously, I was unharmed.)

Three weeks later, my fiancée dumped me.

I remember waking up one morning and thinking, “Damn, this was all just a bad dream.” But it wasn’t a dream.

Things got better in the summer, and have never reached an ebb that low again. I got a full-time job at a fairly prestigious PR agency in town--one that had apparently turned down my rehab-graduate ex-boss. (On a similar note, the son of the social service agency director had started his freshman year at my college--and was having academic problems.)

Looking back on that period, I think I'd been stuck in what I heard someone call an "upside down situation." Up is down, right is wrong, night is day. Whatever a normal, sane person would do in a job was wrong at that place. Ideas that were bizarre and work that anyplace else would get you fired was encouraged and rewarded.

About two years after I left that job, I met the woman I'd marry, and I didn't have any more auto wrecks.

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