Finding Purpose in Nonprofit Work
by Korey Hope, ’16
Whitworth alumnus, Jefferson Shriver, class of ’92, came to Whitworth intending to make money in the field of business after graduation. Today, he finds himself focusing on the financial wellbeing of others, helping small farming families in Central America avoid poverty.
Like many students arriving at college, Shriver had an idea of what he wanted to pursue but ended up changing directions during his time in school. At least half of all college students will change majors one or more times before they graduate, according to Penn State’s “Major Decisions” website for students who are exploring majors. For some, there might be influence from friends or family in changing majors, or maybe a campus activity or club that sparks interest in a new field. But Shriver’s change of heart can be entirely focused on a single event.
“In the spring of my sophomore year,” Shriver explains. “I went on the Central America study tour. It really changed my experience at Whitworth when I came back.” The effect that this study abroad trip had on Shriver ties into a vital part of the university's mission statement: “To advance its founder's mission of equipping students to ‘honor God, follow Christ and serve humanity.’” The Central American venture that Shriver was a part of in 1990 made an impression big enough to keep him there today, “serving humanity” by helping local farmers and their families thrive in what they do.
The subject of business had always interested Shriver, yet he didn’t find his coursework in business to be riveting. He needed a new perspective on his studies, and the Central America program provided it. When he returned to Whitworth, Shriver changed his major to international studies and Spanish. Along with becoming clearer about his academic direction and more interested in his new classes, Shriver also started writing for The Whitworthian and played a role in founding a couple of social student activist groups on campus.
“My experience at Whitworth was really rewarding,” Shriver says. “The value they place on an experiential education was pivotal in my time there.”
His newly found confidence in his studies led to ambitions of working abroad in the nonprofit field of international development. However, Shriver first put his writing experience from The Whitworthian to work, and was a writer for a social justice magazine called Sojourner’s in Washington D.C. The organization’s mission is to “Confront and dismantle discriminatory behavior wherever it may be manifest,” according to its website. Shriver wrote for Sojourner’s monthly magazine for nearly three years.
Then in 1995, Shriver moved to Nicaragua and worked with two nonprofits, Lutheran World Relief and Mennonite Central Committee, seeing his ambitions from when he was in school nearly come to fruition after being only three years graduated. According to their mission statements, both organizations specialize in sharing God’s love for all by helping to end poverty, human suffering, and aiding any community in need to live in peace and justice.
With seven years of nonprofit work under his belt, Shriver went back to school at American University in Washington D.C. He received his masters in global environmental policy in 2004, and returned to Nicaragua to work with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) as an acting country representative and director of the organization’s Development Activities Program. He still works for CRS today, going on his ninth year with CRS.
Most of Shriver’s work has been with small farming communities as an agricultural adviser. He helps small farmers help themselves, he said, mostly by assisting them in growing different types of crops based on specific market demands to increase their income, helping them to organize into businesses, and providing access to different markets that are more profitable.
“In the past eight years I have really focused on cash crops that will help people increase their income and employment opportunities,” Shriver says. “So that at the end of the day, they are escaping poverty.”
The long-term goals of the CRS aid programs are not to promote dependence on foreign aid, but to promote independence among these communities, so that they can eventually support themselves fully and even advance on their own, he said.
Along with developing these small communities, Shriver also had a book published on his work called Reaping Profits while Restoring the Environment: Lessons from Central America. The book is based on his master’s thesis, which was titled “Payment for Environmental Services.” Shriver says “[American University] asked me if I wanted to make it a book, so I added a few chapters and that’s how it happened.” It was picked up and published in 2009 by a small German publisher.
The book highlights poverty alleviation and environmental protection, and determining the common ground between them. Shriver said that is what he has always been passionate about within his work.
Also among his favorite aspects of the job are the wide range of things he can find himself doing in a single day, from meeting with representatives of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to working with a Nicaraguan cocoa farmer about the positive aspects and challenges of life as a farmer in the fields.
“These very different experiences that this life affords you being in this work are incredibly gratifying,” Shriver says. “There aren’t many jobs like this one.”
Shriver also explains how pleasing it is to know he is helping these local farming communities survive when they would otherwise struggle. Shriver says that he finds waking up every day and knowing that what you do is contributing to the development and survival of thousands of people is tremendously satisfying.
Overall, the personal relationships and community at Whitworth is great preparation for real world working situations, Shriver reflects. With a small campus, there were many opportunities for leadership and involvement, as well as having personal affiliations with professors. These aspects of campus life that set Whitworth apart from other schools still helps Shriver with his work today, he says.
“I’m grateful for my experience there,” Shriver says. “If it wasn’t for Whitworth then I wouldn’t be here.”