07/19/2012 06:01 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2012

Nonprofit Paddle Boarding

Ever since Forrest Gump, I've been particularly cautious about metaphorical pronouncements about life, for fear that I'll be haunted forever after by the unintended hollowness of my observations. But I can't help reflecting on the rich figurative material in the sport-of-the-moment: paddleboarding.

Granted: this is not the only activity that requires balance and strength in the face of unforgiving natural obstacles, but it's the one with which I'm the most recently familiar.

On a recent holiday, I watched my 91-pound daughter paddle her way down a river and across a bay while standing on a board. She went out too far for my taste, balancing precariously on what seemed to me a far-too-flimsy vessel, but she still managed to look commanding and focused as she maneuvered through the waves and navigated against the wind. She seemed especially fragile when I compared her to the expanse of sea beyond her, just waiting to suck her into a 2012 remake of Cast Away... but she looked powerful and relaxed, too.

So, with nothing else to do from my station on the shore, I started thinking of all the other areas in my life that contain these core contradictions.

Specifically, I considered the work I regularly do for Cura Orphanage, a Home that cares for 50 of that community's most fragile members. Our children have all lost their parents to AIDS, and their extended families have not had the resources to absorb them without damaging the already fragile financial balance of their own households. The challenges HIV/AIDS has introduced into this Kenyan village are enormous, and, sadly, they are representational of the region in general; according to Unicef's 2009 data, Kenya is home to approximately 1.2 million children orphaned to AIDS.

Compounding the AIDS crisis are other potential natural and political disasters: water scarcity, unfunded educational mandates, encroaching violence, un- and under-employment, climate change, and crop-failure, to name a few.

In the face of this, how do those of us involved in facilitating development in this part of the world maintain our balance and keep the vessel moving in the right direction?

Nonprofit work like mine is not significantly backed by public policy, doesn't have corporate funding, and relies entirely on the work of volunteers (a notoriously well-meaning but unreliable labor pool). The needs we're trying to address are enormous, and the people whose lives are most affected by our work are also those who live on the most precarious edges of our global society.

Though my paddleboarding metaphor has limited utility once I start acknowledging that I'm neither the board nor the sole paddler, I do get the sense that we in the nonprofit world are at least collectively involved in a similar pursuit. Sometimes the best we can do is paddle to stay in place, but sometimes we get ourselves across the bay and into a safe harbor, despite the odds.