What No One Tells You About Working in Non-Profits

or maybe they do, but you always thought they were exaggerating

A career in non-profits is unforgiving.

Being a part of the non-profit world is like that scene in Mean Girls, where Regina George compliments that one girl’s bracelet that was from her mom in the ‘80s even though she secretly thinks it is ugly and gross.

The outside world will throw compliments at you. They will say you are the most warmhearted, inspirational person for being able to be so self-sacrificing. They are thinking, however, that they could never live off of dollars a day. They are glad you are the self-sacrificing one so they don’t have to be.

It’s because people expect all non-profit workers to be selfless. It’s the thing at the top of every NGO job description, right under the tagline that reads “won’t make a ton of money, but it sure is fulfilling”. It’s the kind of thing that really draws in those optimistic, self-sacrificing “do-gooders”.

In the beginning, it’s kind of uplifting and nice that people—your friends, family, kind strangers you happen to talk to in line at the supermarket—call you “selfless” when you tell them you work for a non-profit.

They say, “Oh, I could never do that.”

And you think to yourself, “Well, yes, you could. You just choose not to.”

I must admit that I have thought that to myself so many times, even before I started officially working for a small, community-based non-profit. I will also admit that I would sometimes (read: every time) judge those who would not pursue a career in the non-profit sector or, even worse, take the stuffy corporate route. I’ve since changed my tune ever-so-slightly.

 

The thing is those people who say they could never work in non-profits are usually mostly right. They could probably never succeed in a non-profit, but not because of the reasons they’re thinking.

It’s not because it’s a selfless job that takes someone with a lot of optimism and altruism. That could be true in certain contexts, but not everyone working in a non-profit environment is optimistic or completely altruistic. I’ve met a good amount of realists who are doing quite well for themselves while working in NGOs, granted they are surrounded by a great deal of idealists that balance them out.

But in actuality, I think that the thing about working in non-profits that a lot of people could not handle is how completely unforgiving it can all be. It’s a thankless venture in many ways.

 

Yes, I may be a good person. Yes, I may be compassionate or caring. But simply chalking me up to being “noble” or “selfless” or simply “kindhearted” does a great disservice to those working in the non-profit sector. The amount of work, sacrifice, and effort it takes is completely overlooked when you gloss over it all with those simplifying terms.

 

Non-profit organizations are not selfless. They are tactical and smart, and the good ones are thrifty. They’re constantly in survival mode. Shouting about how kind and great you are won’t get things done. Compliments about how selfless an organization is won’t get things done. The large misconception about non-profits is in the title itself. Though we don’t function to make profit, we do need profits. Financial support is the best kind of support you can give a non-profit. And I think that a lot of times, non-profits are not given the amount of money they deserve, not because they’re unqualified or simply “selfless”, but because the amount of hard work, strategic planning, and foresight it takes to run or even just work in a non-profit is exceptionally overlooked.

 

Every single non-profit worker is forced to wear many hats. I don’t even like hats. They’re nice, but I look terrible in them. And still, you have to deal with it.

Those metaphorical non-profit hats you have to switch in and out of causes a lot of pressure.

It’s not to say that other jobs do not put you under pressure, but the pressure a non-profit worker is put under goes far beyond their job title.

In my case, it’s “Program Development Director”.

And, spoiler alert, I don’t just direct programs.

I am also a case manager, a tutor, an ESL instructor, an intern and volunteer supervisor, a storage unit organizer, a donation collector, an office administrator, and so many other things. I also make tea and eat lunch sometimes.

In addition to whatever basic job duties you might have with your job title, you have to shift and shuffle around every day because things need to get done. There is no extended budget to hire additional program staff. You cannot hand things off to someone else to do, because the worst thing that can happen isn’t just that your paperwork will pile up (which, trust me, is still is an awful thing to deal with). The worst thing that can happen is that an already underserved population will continue to be underserved. You can literally ruin someone’s life. And that is a ton of pressure.  Thanks a lot, hats.

 

Along with the physical responsibilities, you’re also put under the pressure of abstract things, like upholding your organization’s mission. Your existence starts to align with their existence. Their vision becomes yours, their mission becomes yours.

You are suddenly a walking, talking, breathing example of why your organization still needs to exist and why the problem you’re trying to tackle is an important one. You represent far more than anything you’ve ever represented before.

Damn those hats, at it again.

 

Being involved in NGOs, specifically in grassroots ones (though I’m sure the larger ones face similar challenges) is so excruciatingly difficult. Sometimes you feel like everything you do and work for is for naught. But, sometimes during rare moments of caffeine-induced clarity, a client expresses their sincere thanks or you finish a project without having to stop to do some other errand.

In those moments, you realize that you can be both a good, selfless person and a dedicated, talented, hardworking person. Those things are not mutually exclusive.

People don’t like to advertise how difficult it can be working in the non-profit world. I think that is a mistake.

I think it is also a mistake to romanticize the notion of doing good for a career. It takes perseverance, self-reflection, and the willingness to create and maintain healthy boundaries. It is not for everyone.

And, if you find yourself working in the non-profit sector and feel like it isn’t for you, that is okay. It is okay to admit defeat and find another way to support or help the cause. Admitting defeat does not mean you are selfish or lacking in compassion. It means you understand how difficult non-profits can be—that it is not just for the selfless and idealistic. More people need to realize that. Maybe then the already amazing work done by small non-profits can become even more amazing.

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