After spending nearly a decade working in the nonprofit sector, at the end of 2019, I decided it was time to leave. I had bounced from one organization to the next (four in total), each time telling myself “This is the one that’ll stick!” They never did.
Let me preface my story by saying not everyone has the same experience as me. Plenty of people find fulfillment working in the nonprofit sector. These reflections are for those who are looking to get out of the nonprofit world but struggle to reconcile with those feelings.
No company—whether they are for-profit or not—is perfect. However, the following are four common issues you’ll see at most nonprofits:
It’s hard to make a difference if you can’t make a living.
Nonprofits are in a tough spot. Their goals revolve around serving others, not making money. Because their mission is to offer free or low-cost services, they can’t increase prices to make a profit. Not only that, but they are at the mercy of funders and their demands. The Atlantic put out an interesting article in 2015 about a pattern they deemed “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle.”
“The cycle starts with funders’ unrealistic expectations about the costs of running a nonprofit. In response, nonprofits try to spend less on overhead […] to try and meet those unrealistic expectations. That response then reinforces the unrealistic expectations that began the cycle.”
— Jonathan Timm, The Atlantic
Ask anyone who works at a nonprofit and they’ll tell you they aren’t in it for the money. But unfortunately, money is necessary in today’s world. There’s rent, utilities, healthcare, groceries—and millennials like me have the added bonus of mounting student loan debt.
I lived paycheck-to-paycheck during my time working in nonprofits. I was barely able to pay my bills. Eventually, I had to move in with my partner because my rent increased to a point where I couldn’t afford it anymore. I was 33 years old with a checking account with fees because I couldn’t maintain the account minimum, and no savings. I felt like my partner had to carry the bulk of our financial burdens, which made me feel worse. I was stressed all the time, never feeling like I could catch up, despite working a full-time job.
Madeline Fex, who worked for several years as the Director of Marketing and Communications at a private school sums it up nicely:
“Most people join the nonprofit world because they truly want to make a difference. But one thing I discovered is that you can’t take care of yourself if you aren’t being taken care of. After leaving and having those needs met, I find I have the mental space and time to dedicate to causes I care about, outside of work. “
— Madeline Fex, Former Director of Marketing and Communications, Chicago Waldorf School
There are benefits to having good benefits.
For many nonprofits, the benefit is that you’re getting paid. Many places can’t afford to give their employees health insurance or PTO, let alone a retirement plan. Employees wind up having to pay for their own office supplies or gas for work-related travel, with no reimbursement. There were many times I went to work sick because I didn’t have enough PTO. Major fundraiser coming up? There went my weekend, with only the hope of maybe coming in a little late on Monday to make up for it.
Bobby Dixon, who works at WunderLand Group as the Client Engagement Manager, appreciates the flexibility of his company’s benefits, which includes remote work and the ultimate perk—snacks:
“Free snacks and an unlimited work from home policy are benefits. Trusting your colleagues are working as hard at home as they would in the office is good culture. Don’t be afraid to ask. If they are truly concerned about creating the right culture, they will be glad you asked.”
There’s something to be said about job stability.
Because most nonprofits rely heavily on individual donations and grants to operate, job stability isn’t guaranteed. Twice I had to find a new job because of a lack of funding at that organization. It can take a toll on your mental health to work for a company where there is a very real risk of losing your position because your fundraiser had poor turnout or a grant application was denied.
Always overworked and always behind.
There’s a lot of pressure on nonprofits and, therefore, their employees. It can often feel like nothing is more important than the mission: each day feels like you’re just prepping for the next fundraiser, appeal, board meeting, volunteer orientation. And you’re doing it all with limited staff. It was not unusual for myself and other employees to wind up taking on additional roles without a pay increase because it was cheaper to spread work out amongst current staff, than to hire more people. A 2013 study from The Urban Institute reported that most nonprofits chose to cut salaries and benefits before slowing their operations. This leads to burnout, high employee turnover rates, and a constant feeling of always being behind.
So when did I know it was time to throw in the towel? And how will you?
At the last nonprofit I worked, I found myself rapidly declining into a constant feeling of “flight or fight.” What originally inspired me at work was no longer sustaining me, and every day was a challenge to get up and go to work. I would get nauseous during my commute. I was frustrated and angry all the time. I was not bringing my best self to work anymore, which wasn’t helping me or the organization.
At 33, I knew it was time to make a change. I left my job without the safety net of a new position on the horizon. While it was a scary move, it allowed some time for profound reflection.
Now, …what’s next?
The below image shows the Japanese concept of Ikigai, which means “a reason for being.” I was introduced to this on my first day at Highland. I instantly found that it helped me better visualize how I became unhappy with nonprofit work.
When I first started, my state of being fell between the areas marked by “delight and fullness…” and “excitement and complacency…” Low pay for unstable, mission-based work was fine for me when I was 25. But as I got older, I realized that wasn’t enough. I was slowly moving further away from the ideal balance, or Ikigai, and further out to one extreme: “what the world needs.”
I was so attached to doing something “for the good of others,” that I neglected my own needs in the process and I found myself broke, unfulfilled, and miserable.
During my period of unemployment, I took the opportunity to really think about what I needed from a job, and what I wanted.
I recognized I needed a job that:
- Played to my skillsets and made me feel capable.
- Provided an opportunity for growth, both professionally and personally.
- Paid a livable wage.
- Promoted a healthy work-life balance.
- I felt good about coming to every day.
And because a part of me still loved nonprofit work, I wanted to work for a company who’s mission was not just to make a bunch of money, but to make a difference.
If you, too, are considering making the switch from nonprofit work, I recommend thinking about these three features when deciding where to go next:
1. Missions aren’t just for nonprofits.
Just because you’ve decided nonprofits aren’t for you doesn’t mean you have to give up on finding purpose in your work.
You might not be ready to go full Corporate America. One of the things that attracted me to Highland is that they do a lot of work with mission-based organizations such as Morton Arboretum, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, and Make-A-Wish Illinois.
Highland pays it forward by even offering services at a lower cost for nonprofits. Other companies offer opportunities for their employees to do volunteer work or have corporate matching gift programs. Working for a profit-driven company doesn’t mean you have to compromise your morals. Find a company that shares those same beliefs, and encourages that altruistic spirit.
2. Size does matter.
Do you want to be a face in the crowd, or somewhere where everybody knows your name?
The biggest organization I ever worked for had roughly 100 employees. I was used to coming to work every day and being able to greet everyone by name, know their backstories, and feel like they were more than just nameless faces. I was concerned about moving to a large company where staff sizes were hundreds of people, most of whom I wouldn’t be able to pick out of a line-up.
Seeking out smaller companies might make the transition from nonprofit to for-profit a little easier. At Highland, there are 25 onsite employees with another six that work remotely. I was able to quickly learn everyone’s name, their role within the company, and get to know them all as individuals. This helped me to feel like a part of the company sooner than if, at three months in, I was still learning people’s names.
3. Find an environment in which you feel comfortable.
The days of tiny cubicles in gray, fluorescent-lit offices are becoming a thing of the past. You can work someplace nice.
Many companies now incorporate plants, bright paint colors, and open-air desks with plenty of access to natural lighting. At Highland, workspaces are flexible. Many people work at convertible standing desks, sit on couches, and even hang out on the floor. There are also breakout offices when more privacy and quiet are needed. Puzzles and model-building kits are readily available if you need to take a break. The fridge and kitchen pantry are also stocked with a variety of snacks and beverages to keep employees fueled.
When applying for a job, take note of the company’s office space. At one company I interviewed at, the offices were in the basement level. It felt like working in…well…a basement. As someone who hates overhead fluorescent lighting, and prefers to surround herself with natural light, houseplants, and tiny lamps (I call it mood lighting) the idea of working in that space made my claustrophobia kick into overdrive.
You don’t need to get an in-person interview to see the digs, either. Many companies have social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. When I applied to Highland Solutions, one of the first things I did was look through photos on their Facebook page in order to get an idea of what the work environment was like.
Only you know what’s right for you in the long term
Deciding to leave the nonprofit sector is an incredibly hard decision to make, especially if you’ve spent many years trying to make it work. At the end of the day, you don’t need to justify yourself to anyone; if you gave it a shot and felt it just wasn’t for you, that’s fine. Just don’t think that jumping ship and grabbing that for-profit life raft suddenly makes you a corporate shill. There’s plenty of in-between, and if you take the time to reflect and do a little legwork you will hopefully be able to find something that suits you.
There are things I miss about nonprofit work, but I’m happier now than I’ve been in years. I can save money, set some aside for retirement, and still make contributions to causes I’m passionate about. I don’t wake up with a feeling of dread, anymore, which means I’m putting my best foot forward at work each day. I have a better work-life balance and don’t have feelings of resentment.
But most importantly, I’ve got #NoRegrets.