PERCHED at the counter of a trendy coffee shop on K Street - Washington's lobbyist corridor - Harvard Law School alumna Sheila Maith hints at the idealism that distinguishes her from many who stroll by the window in $1,000 suits.
"I've always just been more comfortable with people who have passion," says Ms. Maith of her work at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a nonprofit group that promotes inner-city development.
The idealism that Maith and others display is one of the sacred tenets of youth. Driven by a desire to change the world - and a belief that they can do it - young people volunteer at homeless shelters, teach literacy, or go door-to-door for the environment. But as they move into their careers, many find it difficult to preserve such ideals.
For Maith and three others interviewed for this article, hitching their idealism to a career has demanded persistence, sacrifice, and determination.
At Harvard, Maith says, many of her classmates had aspirations toward "do-good" careers, too. But they lacked a clear idea of "what those careers would be or even how to look for them." And with major law firms recruiting on campus for high-salary positions, "The very easiest thing to do was to go work for a big firm."
For Maith, doing something different required "a conscious break." For her, that break was pursuing a second degree in public policy and going to a "progressive," albeit large, law firm. After a stint at Boston's redevelopment agency, she went to LISC.
What motivated her?
As an only child growing up in lower-middle class Baltimore, Maith says she was treated "like a very special kid." And, "when you have special opportunities, you can't help but feel like you were chosen to do a different thing - and that you have an obligation to do it." One such opportunity was going to Harvard. Upon graduation, she says, "it seemed too selfish to say, 'So now I'll be like [junk-bond king] Michael Milken.'"
Doing "something different," involves compromise, Maith says. "I don't really feel like I'm doing it," she says of being a true idealist. "People who are in the Peace Corps are doing it. People who actually go to live in a low-income community - they're doing it."
Almost sheepishly she says she recently bought a house and has "a lot of nice things." Yet she is comfortable with the degree of idealism in her life: "I feel like I make my contribution," she says, "and that's OK for me."
A steadier course
Omay Elphick's mornings start early. As he charges into the Chesapeake Bay on a 65-foot oyster boat, the sun is often just beginning to illumine the thick morning fog. It was in this fog, just one year out of college, that Mr. Elphick first encountered a question that weighs heavily on many who devote themselves to an idealistic aim: What if, for all our efforts, we fail?
Elphick, who graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1994, is part of the Annapolis, Md.-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation's education program. He plies the bay in a skipjack-turned-classroom teaching school children, college students, and teachers about the bay's ecosystem - and how to save it.
"If you look at it through the right glasses, it seems hopeless," Elphick used to say. With waste and pollutants from 15 million people flowing into the bay, and 2-1/2 million people expected to move into the area over the next 25 years, Elphick had reason to be concerned.
But a year in daily pursuit of saving the bay has done much to lift the fog of pessimism.
One reason: other environmental success stories. On the nearby Rappahannock River, he says, "you can see bald eagles just as often as you see sea gulls." Another reason: daily interaction with others who share his goal. These include some of the 36,000 people that Elphick's program educates each year.
The young teacher has a more realistic view of his goal: "In many ways the thing that keeps you going every day is the image of [returning to] the pristine bay," he says, "but in reality I would just like to get it to the point that it won't decay any more."
But as the question of long-term success fades, a shorter-term issue dogs Elphick - and many like him: Can I afford such devotion to an ideal?
Nonprofit organizations are often "isolated enclaves of preppies," Elphick says. Staff members' small salaries are sometimes offset by big trust funds. But Elphick, whose parents are teachers, does not have the luxury of family monetary support.
"I have no desire to be obscenely - or even moderately obscenely - wealthy," he says. But in this line of work, "it becomes questionable whether or not I can attain my other goals and dreams."
But, like his aim to preserve the bay, one of his dreams - to sail around the world in his own boat - is getting closer to reality: He and some friends cobbled together some funds and bought a boat. They hope to set sail in the next few years.
What ultimately motivates Elphick ensures that he will continue pursuing the goal of preserving the environment. Most important to him, he says, is the ability "to offer my own children the option to explore the outdoors rather than have to just look at my pictures and read about it."
No match with Wall Street
Like Elphick, Andy Sack has two life goals: making money and making a contribution. For Sack, they don't conflict.
After studying economics at Brown University in Rhode Island, and receiving a masters in business from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Sack was "very strong on the investment banking track," he says. But when he began interviewing for jobs on Wall Street, "It was just clear there wasn't a match."
For Sack, the mismatch came because the desire to "nurture my conscience" was just as important as accumulating significant wealth. But, he says, it is "easier to have a conscience in school when you don't have bills to pay." And "when the pressure of getting a job comes, it's pretty easy" to focus on making money.
But after giving up on investment banking and taking time off to travel, he found a job that enables him to do both: Sack is an associate at the Boston-based UNC Partners - a venture-capital firm that aims to jump-start minority-owned businesses. While many budding career idealists picture themselves as "poor but happy" nonprofit workers, Sack says that the most important question to ask is: "How can I have the biggest impact in the world?"
To him, there are three possibilities: "You can either be wise, wealthy, or extremely politically savvy," he says.
Sack chooses wealth. With money, he says, comes influence. "You could spend all your time working [in soup kitchens] and have some effect," he says, "or you could accumulate $10 million and hire hundreds of people" to make a bigger difference.
For him, business is the most effective tool for bringing about change. Eventually, Sack says he wants to run his own company "that honors and respects people" by enabling them to "go to work and maintain their values."
Vision, hard work are key
Vanessa Kirsch is a hard-driving entrepreneur bursting with idealism. The pictures of the powerful that dot her spacious corner office in a slightly ramshackle downtown Washington building highlight the success of Public Allies, the organization Ms. Kirsch founded four years ago.
On one wall, Hillary Clinton smiles amid a group of "allies" - young people, mostly from poorer communities, who prepare for nonprofit careers in year-long paid apprenticeships with local community groups. On another wall, President Bill Clinton dons a Public Allies hat for his morning jog. And on another, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts cheers an Allies project. Typically, allies work in every kind of grass-roots organization, from homeless shelters to performing-arts workshops.
Although the twentysomething Kirsch insists that "there was no real strategy behind our success," the Public Allies budget has soared from $280,000 three years ago to $3 million this year.
"That's one of the greatest things about organizations run by young people," she says: "Not knowing what we can't do enables us to do a lot."
Despite Kirsch's claims of unplanned success, she admits to being well prepared. After helping to organize the 1988 Democratic Convention, she began working for Democratic pollster Peter Hart. There, she says, she learned the wiles and ways of Washington and - most of all - how to "schmooze."
Much of Kirsch's time is spent pacing behind her large desk "schmoozing." Phone in hand, she raises funds to keep her dream - now embodied in more than 100 allies - alive. Often, she's rebuffed. On being rejected by one major corporate funder, "I was blown away," she says, her voice becoming shrill. "I felt like there was no recourse to tell them 'Do you know what you've done to us? Don't you understand?' "
But it is the urgency of social problems that keeps her pounding the well-worn carpet behind her desk. One such pressing problem is teen pregnancy. It is an issue with particular gravity for the allies - some of whom are single young parents.
Unlike many upper-crust do-gooders of the past, Kirsch says that when an ally who is a young mother talks with schoolchildren about the burdens of teen pregnancy, she is "not just some Joe Schmoe who can be patient. She is a young woman who herself is a mother and who wants to tell teenagers not to get pregnant."
But beyond "schmoozing" ability, Kirsch says only hard work will achieve idealistic goals. The key to success, she says, is "people who have the dream, the mission, the vision." Experience isn't as important, she says, so long as "you love the idea, and are willing to put in the extra hours."