Unsolicited advice: stuff you should think about if you want to work in the non-profit sector

Today is #GivingTuesday and it brought back both positive and negative memories of my stint in the non-profit industry. I’ve known many in the non-profit sector since college. Some friends who worked in non-profits are still successful and even moved up the career ladder through this work. Others totally burned out (me!), and others are still vying to get into this sector as a career. There plenty of advice columns about this, but since there are few women of color who write about stuff, here are my two cents.

  1. The cause can be fulfilling, but the workplace may not be. If you really care about a social justice issue, then working in a non-profit may be for you. Non-profits have a variety of roles, and not all of them require you to be an extrovert. Like any job, you should pay attention to the work culture for red flags. As staff levels are small in non-profits, tension can quickly build if something is wrong. Volunteering at said organization first may be a good idea, as you can do this in your spare time but observe from a distance without feeling stuck.
  2. Pay is lower compared to other sectors. There are a variety of articles that cover this. Many non-profits only offer salary positions that are exempt from overtime, and this is legal in many states. A lot of places will ask you to do things as a volunteer in addition to your actual paid work, and “part-time” non-profit work is often close to full-time depending on what you’re asked to do.
  3. You’ll do a lot that isn’t in your job description. Because many non-profits don’t have discretionary income, they might not have a janitor or may forgo other things that someone else is hired to do. You might end up cleaning out the fridge from the time to time (I had to do this once, and my co-worker almost threw up because she insisted on opening every old container and sniffing it even though the mold was clearly visible).
  4. You’ll get burned out. A lot of non-profits, especially those that do community organizing or social justice work, will require you to give up your nights and weekends. You’ll lose friends, time spent with family, and even sleep if you’re not careful.
  5. You may be pressured into become a martyr. This is kind of the same thing as getting burned out, but I put this in a different place because in some places those who work the longest, who skip lunch, and get no sleep over work are seen as good employees. I worked in a non-profit where I tried to keep reasonable hours and take at least 30 minutes of lunch on a daily basis. This was frowned upon where I worked, and I was often criticized for not answering the phone during lunch hours or taking my legal 10 minute breaks. I despise the culture of being a martyr ever since then, and discourage people from doing this or working in places that believe this to be The Way when it comes to non-profit work.
  6. Your position may not be guaranteed forever. Let’s say you miraculously don’t get burned out because you’re encouraged to engage in self-care. Many non-profit jobs are grant-based, and not all grants for positions are renewable. The reason why so many non-profits have fundraisers, memberships, recruit volunteers, and offer incentives for people to donate is so that they can have discretionary income to shield positions and pay the bills in case they lose a grant. It’s hard to measure success in the non-profit world because the work does not measure success the same way as the corporate world. If your non-profit isn’t good at fundraising or a certain grant can’t be renewed, you may lose your job.
  7. Toxic people are everywhere. Some days *you* will be the toxic one. I know this was the case for me, but I can also say that I was the person at the bottom of the food chain, so I had little power and got called out and yelled at more times than I can count. If the most toxic person is the one in charge, then your experience won’t be good. At all.
  8. It may not be a fit for you. In my time working in non-profits I learned that I dislike giving up my nights and weekends no matter what the cause. I’m a terrible public speaker, and am no persuasive in the least. This was bad because I was a community organizer. Now, I don’t know why the place even hired me to do this or why I rarely received a productive review, but that job title just wasn’t a fit for me.

I didn’t succeed at working in the non-profit sector, but when I look at the people who have I see that they have a passion for X cause/movement that I didn’t, along with an energy level that I also didn’t have. Some people were better at detecting a toxic work environment or checking their emotions at the door. Others don’t mind being interrupted during lunch (and I equate such people with Mother Theresa because I still don’t allow interruptions when I’m eating).

One thing I did learn that may be of use to you is that you shouldn’t let your ideals get in the way of the fact that this is work. Come to terms with the fact that some days you won’t be good at this. Some days work will suck, and you may end up in a negative situation. Whatever the case, do your homework and test the waters as much as you can, because you should enjoy this as much as possible if that’s the road you want to take.

Unsolicited advice: stuff you should think about if you want to work in the non-profit sector Click To Tweet

2 thoughts on “Unsolicited advice: stuff you should think about if you want to work in the non-profit sector

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