Longing to get out from under your desk and back on the frontline? Andrew Chaggar discusses his frustrations with working in the back-office, and why it's worth it.
I’m typing this month’s blog with the sun streaming in through the window. As a result of the glorious weather I’m increasingly conscious that summer is almost upon us and that I’ve now been back in the UK, and therefore off the front-line, for almost five months.
With our projects in Haiti transitioned to local partners, I returned to the UK in January and since then have been working on a range of back-office tasks which have all been tied together by the development of an over-arching business plan.
While we’ve definitely “broken the back” of the work involved there is still a fair amount to do before I’ll feel ready to deploy overseas again. Updating our back-office was, after all, why I came home so rushing the job now seems frivolous. At the same time however, I am starting to get a little frustrated at the amount of time things are taking. I’m keen to get my hands dirty again and my feet are getting “itchier” by the day.
These conflicting priorities are, of course, neither new nor unique to myself. Tension between front-line and administrative needs are very familiar not only to me, but also to my fellow disaster responders and the sector as a whole.
I started off as a disaster response volunteer due to my own personal involvement in the 2004 Asian tsunami. When I originally signed up I simply wanted to provide hands-on help to fellow disaster survivors. However, as I became a project manager, my responsibilities increased and I inevitably spent more and more time managing other volunteers who were doing the actual front-line work. While this was not what I originally envisaged myself doing I came to accept the necessity of the situation.
Since I co-founded our charity this trend has continued, as demonstrated by my current circumstances. What’s more, I’ve also seen others beginning to face their own, similar, internal conflicts. In Haiti for example volunteers often joined us on a fairly casual basis before moving into roles with greater responsibility and, often as a consequence, more time in the office.
As office-based work isn’t as tangible or 'glamorous' it could often be hard for these essential individuals to adjust to the bravado and banter of tight-knit construction teams returning to base at the end of a day’s “real work” digging foundations or pouring concrete. As a result an important part of my own role was reminding others that their role was also vital.
Beyond disaster response I’m sure others working in the wider charitable sector also feel similar tensions in regards to their own personal motivations when working on back-office tasks - after all, I don’t think many of us plan to become administrators.
Of course, this tension between front-line and administrative needs doesn’t only relate to the motivations of staff and volunteers, it’s also of huge relevance to donors. In much the same way that most of us don’t picture ourselves as administrators when we first get involved in the sector, donors don’t often picture themselves funding back-office needs.
This is, in itself, a much discussed issue and not one I’m going to revisit in-depth now. However, I did come recently across a great analogy on the necessity of administration costs in Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s eBook “Lies, White Lies, and Accounting Practices: Why nonprofit overheads don’t mean what you think they mean” which I thought was worth sharing:
"Imagine walking into... Burger King (or whatever fast food restaurant you frequent) and insisting that you will only pay for whatever is actually on your hamburger. You’ll give them money for the cost of the bun, ketchup, hamburger patty, and pickles. But you refuse to pay for staff wages, building rental, electricity... [What kind of product could they produce?] How long would they stay in business?"
So, if like me at the moment, you sometimes find yourself wondering how you went from the glamorous world of front-line work to the more tedious tasks of finance, marketing and business planning then take heart - your restaurant is likely to produce a far better hamburger.