Nonprofit Work … My Take

To be perfectly honest, I have recently had both terrible and wonderful experiences in Nonprofits, and my advice for most people is the same as for any other industry: buyer beware. There are great nonprofits, ethical, solid, and serious places to work which are making a positive impact in the world.  Then there are nonprofits which are disorganized, or toxic, or simply ineffective which are full of people with petty little fiefdoms, lazy slobs, and genuine saints.

There are a few ways in which nonprofits do have some common tendencies.  Not radically different from other places, but a slight leaning in one direction or another. You will find a slightly higher proportion of resistance to change, conflict avoidance, and a tendency to “save face” rather than transparently face errors and failures.  On the other hand, you’ll meet an incredible number of people who genuinely care about you as a human being as you work along side one another.  You will see the very best of humanity and develop a more complex and nuanced understandings both of what is causing harm and the solutions which improve lives on a daily basis.

The almost-universal frustration I have experienced is that even in mid sized nonprofits, good resources and tools are scarce.  At a recent job, it took me almost 3 months to convince my boss to purchase a $55  license to adobe acrobat so I could create forms and PDF packets. We panic too often about the mythic administrative:program ratio, and keeping costs low, often to the point of priding ourselves for our time-wasting work around solutions and normalizing “penny wise but pound foolish” decision making Too many versions of this story take place in nonprofits basically every day.

One other warning.  People in nonprofits do NOT work less, less hard, or less ambitiously than other professionals.  I’ve encountered job applicants who say they want to “take a break from the rat race” and come work for us. Every single one of those survive less than six months, because they greatly misread how much would be expected of them at a nonprofit. Nonprofits cannot afford to carry dead weight, so people do get fired, and often work two or three jobs worth of work.  It’s more akin to start up culture than low-key small business most of the time. It is NOT easier, but it is different. A lot of highly trained people who perform highly skilled and extremely complex jobs also add a few hours at the end of the work week to clean the break room floor, take out the trash, troubleshoot the copier, clean up the flier which needs printing, or they buy a 3lb can of coffee from costco for the group because budgeting for staff coffee seems like a luxury. I know so many executive director who spend nights at shelters because a hurricane is blowing in and two paid staff are required to keep the doors open during the storm.  If you work for a theater or art museum, you’re going to regularly go home with bruises, paint on your cloths, splinters from carrying around risers, or an hilarious story about holding the ladder for your curator as he/she hung that 40 foot high thingamabob.

The public do not often think before speaking about nonprofits.  Donors are like clients/customers, but you are not selling them anything of value they can take home in exchange for their money.  Your have to give them good feelings and meaningful stories instead.  Their egos are bottomless-black-holes of want and need. They are also generous, kind, hilarious. One of my best friends now was once a prospective donor on my assignment list; we clicked and hang out at least once a week. Fundraising events are almost universally loved by attendees and hated by the staff who put them on.  They don’t make financial sense if you account for staff time costs, but almost no other strategy engages as many stakeholders so quickly.  Volunteers are the life blood of nonprofits, under appreciated and ignored, but also needy, frustrating, unreliable, and an absolute godsend when you forgot you needed to get 500 invitations out by Friday and you can’t afford a mailing house.

People who need services (often called clients also) are like customers as well, but often they are in the middle of trauma, disease, fear, they are young, hungry, smelly, or have their own emotional issues.  They will overwhelm you with gratitude one day, and spit in your face the next.  They will challenge every assumption you have about race, class, working hard, why people go to jail, the legitimacy of work in general, the valuation of art, how to talk to a human being, and what works for people.  And they will be late, forget about appointments, fail to show up, and blame you for their problems.  They are humans, and often we meet them in the moment when they literally have no energy or emotional strength to be their best selves.  Trauma (and poverty itself is traumatic, if nothing else) causes humans to be irritable, forgetful or to skip a shower.  Stress makes people struggle to complete a sentence, or remember to … what was it?

I’m not trying to scare you away.  But I want you to know, working for nonprofits is just that – work.  And it’s often like working in an emergency department or urgent care medical clinic – you have conflicting priorities, people competing for your attention, but there is absolutely no where else you would want to be. Because at the end of the day, the look on a young woman’s face when she tells you her new job at Target pays $14 an hour, full time, with health benefits, is priceless.  The sigh of relief from a man who has slept outside for weeks and hears you have an emergency bed with a private shower is the most beautiful thing in the world. So is the donor who THANKS YOU for the opportunity to participate, or the volunteer who comes back every Tuesday at 6am to chop up pieces of fish to feed the aquarium’s animals.

That is why we do this – we know we’re making a difference in our small corner of the world.  It’s messy and exhausting.

And I might be ready to give it up. But I will walk away proud, and pleased that for a while, I was capable of being part of the better part of us.

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