When I was in my early twenties, I dreamt of making a dent in the HIV/AIDS and water crises in Africa. As a young founder of a new nonprofit, I received the fanfare associated with being a social entrepreneur. I was lauded for what I had started. We are enamored with newness; launching something creates a splash on the news feed and tempts the imagination of what can be.
But starting an organization is not the hard thing; building the organization and sustaining yourself in the work is the hard thing.
The real question is what happens once the startup loses the new shine? What do you do when the cause feels too daunting, or attendance is low, or the work is unfulfilling, or the blog visits are scant? How do you persist through a great endeavor when it just doesn’t feel as great anymore?
We had the audacious belief that we could bring clean water to millions of people in Africa and bring health care to thousands of families in HIV-affected communities. Imagining those goals was not the hard part. Following through on vision, persisting with grit despite the self-doubt— that has been hard. Only 10 years later have I realized how difficult it is to keep doing a good thing in the world, to set something in motion that will last.
Here are some of the practices I have learned in order to stay with something, especially when it becomes difficult:
Fight Against the Cultural Undertow
We live in a culture saturated with expectations of expediency and disposability. We hardly have to wait for anything anymore. We microwave our food, download our books and Google our questions. We can send messages across the world in a matter of seconds and order an item on Amazon on a Tuesday afternoon and have it arrive on our front porch Wednesday morning. And if we don’t like what we have, we can return it, exchange it or start over.
I still believe the greatest and most lasting works of beauty (by humans or by God) are the ones that come after years of cultivation.
We do this in so many areas of our lives—causes, relationships, diets, jobs. In fact, more than 90 percent of millennials only expect to stay in a job for three years or less—that’s more than 15 jobs in a working lifetime.
The trouble is, our culture’s expectation of instant gratification doesn’t work for the things that matter most. While the world is changing faster than ever, changing the world (and ourselves) takes time and cultivation.
In my work, I learned that it is relatively easy to drill a well. That can be done in a few days. But the true and hard work is changing the behaviors in a community by convincing people to properly utilize the clean water, to wash their hands and to build latrines. Those are the keys to improved health.
If you want this real change, it requires nearly a year of advanced planning to mobilize the local community to form a water committee, train people in water and hygiene and invite them to contribute their own resources and labor. The result is not just water today but water and health for a lifetime.
Look at how God fashioned the world to work: It takes years for a seed to become a trunk and branches and leaves before there is any fruit to show for it. I still believe the greatest and most lasting works of beauty (by humans or by God) are the ones that come after years of cultivation.
Let Comparison Inspire Rather Than Discourage
Teddy Roosevelt is often credited with saying, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” On days when I’ve felt discouraged about growing my nonprofit, Blood:Water Mission, I can’t stop myself from looking at other organizations and wishing ours could be like theirs. I feel sorry for myself and assume other leaders have it easier. I pay attention to what I am lacking and let self-pity and doubt rise.
But if I spent that energy instead on pushing through and reminding myself why this mission is so important and what makes it unique, I could persist. It is not productive to compare ourselves. Our dreams are seeds, and we need to keep watering them even if it feels as though they will never grow, even if it seems as though the towering trees nearby are overshadowing them.
(And if you’re going to spend your time comparing your endeavor to that of others, let their greatness inspire you. Look to those in your field whom you admire, and let them fuel you to pour greatness back into your own work).
Choose it Again and Again and Again
The work will disappoint you. Exhaustion, disillusionment or some dose of reality will steal your internal motivation. Being in that empty space can be scary. What happens when you don’t think you love the cause or endeavor anymore? What happens when you don’t get the intended results?
I have spent a lot of time in the desert of northern Kenya where the communities have worked diligently to build rainwater catchment tanks in area schools. After over a year of mobilizing, training and building, the tanks were constructed right before the region entered a severe drought. The beautiful new rain tanks sat dry. I remember feeling weary from the disappointment and overwhelmed with the question of whether our efforts were futile. I wanted to stop trying, because it hurt too much to feel the failure.
I have learned, however, that love and creativity and working for change is a choice. The feelings will come and go, the successes will rise and fall, but a true commitment will endure past those fleeting moments. It can feel daunting at times to constantly choose it, especially when you don’t feel it. Yet, there is freedom when you realize you do have a choice, and you can reaffirm it each day, regardless of immediate outcome.
The feelings will come and go, the successes will rise and fall, but a true commitment will endure past those fleeting moments.
Eighteen months after the rain tanks were built, the rains finally returned for our friends in Kenya. The hard work of the communities bore the fruit of life-saving water. The most beautiful things in the world are those you have to fight through and choose over and over again.
Celebrate the Small
The original dream of Blood:Water was to bring water to a thousand communities in Africa. It took eight years to achieve that goal. Some days, it was intimidating to realize we needed to raise millions of dollars to get there. But we chose to celebrate not just the large checks, but also the small gifts. Some days, our envelopes were filled with dollar bills from children who cared enough to send their allowance on behalf of children in Africa. We must pause for these moments, and let them encourage us.
If you have a book to write, celebrate the completion of a chapter or, on a harder day, just the fact that you wrote at all. If you’re championing a cause, remember that social change is made up of a thousand little steps forward (and sometimes backward!) along the way. Don’t miss the milestones—they are the fuel that will keep you and the others with you going.
Give it to God
It’s easy to become a martyr for that which costs time and personal endurance to build, but it’s important to remember you’re in partnership with a mighty and compassionate God who laid the initial calling on your heart in the first place.
Some days, the best thing you can do is to stop doing, put it down and trust that it’s taken care of. God doesn’t promise your calling will be easy. But He does promise to never leave you. He is there every step along the way for us to fall upon, rest upon or call out to when the inevitable roadblocks come. Give yourself grace, and ask for help.
As you continue to endure the challenges of time, comparison or audacious expectations, let God surprise you. More often than not, what flourishes on the other side of your commitment will be more beautiful and lasting than what you started with.