Navigating a New Normal in Relationship Building

Samantha Nelson, summer Development Intern at The Advocates For Human Rights and senior at University of Michigan, Class of 2021

Before joining The Advocates as an intern, I had only a vague idea how nonprofits operate and knew little about the meaning of and working in development. Eight weeks later, and I can confidently say that my knowledge of the inner workings of the nonprofit world has grown ten-fold. 

At the core of development is building long-lasting relationships. The common thread through all the projects that I tackled over the past few months has been sustaining connections. For example, I worked on an intern engagement campaign that showcases the valuable role of young people in human rights advocacy. The project consisted of asking current interns from all different programs to describe the experiences that brought them to The Advocates. I also wanted to know why they felt compelled to be involved in human rights. Aside from helping me learn more about my fellow interns, the project also taught me how to be a more effective communicator, a critical skill in development. When I drafted intern emails, I had to be mindful of the language I used, the tone I took, and the clarity of my request. Reflecting on my communication with the interns now, I realize that the goal of the campaign wasn’t just to extract information from each individual, but to form relationships, to really get to know each intern with intentionality and genuine interest. 

Strengthening relationships was also at the core of another project. I wrote handwritten cards to longtime friends and partners of The Advocates and learned that seemingly small tokens like birthday cards demonstrate a commitment of time and energy and, by extension, symbolize a commitment to the supporters of The Advocates themselves. Investing time is crucial to constructing long-lasting relationships, which, as I’ve come to learn, is something that development prioritizes in all of its interactions.  

Deep-rooted relationships are the key to running a sustainable nonprofit because it’s these relationships that we can depend on during difficult times. And these are difficult times indeed. In the midst of a global public health and racial crisis, this may well be one of the most trying years that many of us have ever faced. These crises have created tangible obstacles to establishing connections and maintaining relationships. With our external partners, we face new challenges of planning engaging virtual events, accommodating different preferences, and preserving a spirit of positivity and hope. Internally, we lose the small moments of office coffee chats, intern lunches, and the flow of the workday. At the center of one of the most formidable moments in history, we’ve all been forced to take pause and wonder where there is room for relationship-building in this unfamiliar reality. 

Countless uncertainties and barriers lie ahead for us all. Daunting as the future may feel, there is always room for relationship-building. As I reflect back on my internship at The Advocates, I realize that relationship-building, though undeniably difficult, is not only still possible, but also essential. While there were no talks over coffee or lunch breaks with coworkers, there were brown bag lunches, weekly virtual chats with cohorts of interns and various program directors, and mentorship zoom calls. And although the workday couldn’t fit the conventional nine to five structure, there were still weekly staff meetings with updates on the progress of respective programs and stories of both challenges and triumphs. Even without in-person interaction, I realize that I was able to build relationships: during weekly meetings with my supervisors, while collaborating on projects with my coworker Chloé, and through check-in Zoom “coffee chats” with my internship mentor. Though I hadn’t expected to form bonds over zoom calls and WhatsApp messages this summer, I’m grateful for these virtual moments and the knowledge I’ve gained from the people with whom I spent them.   

In times of crisis and inconsistency, we all need connection and relationships to ground us. Though the next year will present hurdles to overcome, development’s role will be more vital than ever before because what the world needs now is connection. Development is the glue of the nonprofit. It keeps all of us– staff, donors, interns, and friends– engaged and united under the common goal of creating a more equal and just society.  

When I think back to the handwritten thank you letters, my mind always wanders to the same line, ‘You are changing the world for good.’ These words encapsulate the essence of The Advocates’ goal to not only create a more inclusive and just world, but to inspire others to do the same. I like to think that development’s role is to connect us to one another and guide us all toward that shared goal, a goal that, whether in person or through a computer screen, I know we’ll keep fighting for. 

By Samantha Nelson, Development Intern at The Advocates For Human Rights and a senior at the University of Michigan.


The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.

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