In kindergarten, most of my peers wanted to become either models, actors, or doctors when they grow up. For a change, I was jealous of priests, and of the fact that they are allowed to listen to people’s confessions for the whole days. I wanted to know the truth about people, however dirty this truth might be. And, I was bitter thinking that I would actually never become a priest. Until I did.
For the last two years, I was working on behalf of the Organisation for Humans Brain Mapping (OHBM) Student and Postdoc Special Interest Group as the Career Development and Mentoring Manager. This is a student board within OHBM, responsible for mentoring activities for early career researchers within OHBM such as coordinating International Online Mentoring Programme, organising mentoring events during the annual meeting, and such. Serving for this council was an unpaid function, a philanthropy of sorts - a lot of work for free. But, from the current perspective I am very glad that I took the decision to join back then as it slowly, bit by bit, changed all my life for the better. I applied two years ago because I was tired with my methodological PhD in which I could never see any real world output of my work. I wanted to have some side activity in which I can see the faces of stakeholders, and talk to them.
Then, in the process of working for OHBM, I discovered that ‘this is it’. Working on other people’s careers was so much more enjoyable to me than working on the models of brain networks that the decision to do more in this direction was a no-brainer. Last summer, I started thinking of my own foundation, and in November 2018, it came to life as Stichting Solaris Onderzoek en Ontwikkeling.
Of course, it is not easy to pull off a foundation.
First of all, there are lots of foundations already, and there is no point in designing a new foundation which is copying operations of some other foundations. Instead of competing, it is better to find out what other foundations are already doing, refer to them in an informative way, and design new, complimentary practices. In order to work out new practices, one needs to have a clear view on which strategies to help people might provide a lot of value (at as little financial cost as possible), and which strategies will be costly and inefficient. The process of designing a workflow in a foundation is, in a way, something similar to research or a new business: that you can only find out by trial and error, and by testing new solutions in practice.
Secondly, you need to find people who think alike. In the Netherlands, foundations are decentralised by design so that important decisions should not be taken by any single individual but rather, by a board composed of at least three individuals. This is why it is so crucial to find the right co-directors. I was thinking about this topic for a long time, and eventually, I invited people whom I had known before, whom I personally find empathic, diligent, intelligent, and who are compromising by nature. So far so good - I think it was a good choice, and we are getting along very well.
Thirdly, you need to be able to motivate people. Normally, a salary (or some other financial renumeration) is a large part of motivating other person to spend time and effort to actually do something for you. So, how would you motivate busy, overworked people to spend their evenings doing something completely for free? You need to have a great cause, but at the same time, you also need to be available, approachable, always polite, positive, inspiring in some way, always on the mode to give advise to other people. You cannot have weak moments and complain about your situation as you are supposed to help other people all the time.
Fourthly, you need to take care of the public image - whenever you like it or not. This summer, I applied for ANBI status for Stichting Solaris. Luckily, we have got it! ANBI is a prestigious status in the Netherlands as it basically means that the national Dutch tax office recognises us as an organisation for public good, and gives tax reduction benefits to anyone who is willing to support us with donations. I do not count on donations, but ANBI status is a quality stamp which gives other people trust in what we do.
Next, you need to care about public perception, namely to create a decent website, and report any news through social media and through the foundation’s websites. Of course, if you do not talk to the world about what you are doing, no one will know about your existence. Dissemination of information does not sound like a lot of work but can be quite distractive if you have a lot of other responsibilities.
Lastly, you need to care about privacy of information: develop good GDPR practices, and in case you are going to discuss and/or store some sensitive personal data, also sign non-disclosure agreements with the people involved. Foundations are based on public trust, and you must make sure that the data are properly protected and will not leak.
To sum up, launching a foundation is a more tiresome hobby than shopping or playing board games. But in the long run, it is more rewarding too. And so here I am, picking up emails from people who need help and advice, under the confidentiality clause - and trying to help them. No, I am not a priest - but to me, this is close enough.
A little announcement:
If you enjoy my writing, I would like to let you know that I am just finishing writing my first book, dedicated to post-academic career tracks. If you would like to be notified by email as soon this book appears on Amazon, please subscribe to the white list. Thank you so much!