Working for a Non-Profit May Make You Miserable

Whenever I tell people I work for a non-profit organization, I always get a wistful look followed by a statement like, “Gee, I’d love to quit my job and work for a non-profit.” I don’t know why but somewhere along the way, working for a non-profit became synonymous with fulfillment. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and am incredibly fulfilled by it – much more so than the big PR agency jobs I held prior. But I love my job because it’s well-matched with my values and my personal vision for my life. The fact that the company I work for is a non-profit with a mission I strongly believe in is an added bonus but not the reason I work there.

I do a lot of informational interviews with job seekers who are either switching careers, have been laid off from their previous jobs or both. Many of these people spent their entire careers in the private sector and are disillusioned by Corporate America. They often believe that working for a organization that is mission-focused rather than profit- motivated will give them a deeper sense of contribution and fulfillment.

Working for a non-profit organization can indeed be a wonderful career move… if you are doing it for the right reasons. But you are setting yourself up  for disappointment if you believe any of the following:

You think you’ll have more work/life balance than in your corporate job. Not necessarily. Many non-profits are staffed very lean and their executives and senior managers work their butts off. They also have the pressure of  worrying about the operations of their organization and constantly fundraising for their budgets.  Added to that, many staff at non-profits wear multiple hats.   I coach many non-profit executives who struggle with workaholism and work/life balance issues.

Reality Check: Volunteering will give you a first hand feel for how a non-profit runs, particularly if you get involved in a way that allows you to observe the day-to-day operations of the organization. See what challenges the staff are experiencing on a daily basis. Observe how they manage resources (or a lack thereof). You’ll get an important window into what keeps non-profit executives up at night.

You think you won’t have to work with assholes anymore. Sorry, just because you are working for a non-profit doesn’t mean your colleagues will be saints. Non-profits are as prone to politics,  crappy managers and dysfunction as any other organization.

Reality Check: Spend some time talking to both executives and front line staff of the organizations you are interested in so you get a real feel for the people and the organizational culture.

You think all non-profits are charities. When people think of non-profits they often think of charities such as food banks or homeless shelters. But foundations, hospital systems, think tanks, industry associations just to name a few are all non-profits and many operate and have organizational cultures that are similar to those found in the private sector. The meta-message here is that without doing your homework, you could end up working in a culture similar to what you were trying to leave behind.

Reality Check: Get clear about what kind of organization you are really interested in. Pursue internships and volunteer opportunities that will give you broad exposure to different non-profits. Many communities now run volunteer centers that match volunteers with non-profit organizations in need of help. Network with friends and colleagues who serve on non-profit boards to get you connected.

You think it will be easier to get a job in the non-profit sector. Not true. Non-profits can be just as competitive and choosy about talent as their private sector counterparts. In fact, because the job market is so flooded with jobseekers, they too are overwhelmed with applicants.  They are looking for leaders with relevant experience, standout leadership skills and most importantly the ability to bring in money and  leverage relationships and specific operational expertise.

Reality Check: Interview staff  and find out what kind of people they are looking for while taking hard look at  your own interests and skill sets.

You want to “give back”. I hear this one  a lot. It usually goes something like, “I’ve been doing XYZ long enough and I just think it’s time for me to give back.” Really? Unless you are independently wealthy, no it’s not time. Too often people engage in magical thinking when it comes to working for a non-profit. They idealize the mission and the staff. Many (not all) non-profit jobs pay far below the private sector.  This is often the biggest shock for corporate refugees.  Now, there’s nothing wrong in working for a lower salary for something you truly believe in. But go into the job with eyes wide open. Really understand the day in and day out realities of your prospective non-profit employer and don’t romanticize the work it does.

Reality Check: Think carefully about your motivations for working for a non-profit. Are you running away from your old career or running to an opportunity you’ve created through careful introspection, research and relationship building? You can always “give back” by volunteering.

Lest you think I am a complete cynic, I am not. At the heart of the issue for most job seekers is a need to find work that connects deeply with their values and the core of their being. And you should want those things. We spend far too much of our lives at work to do a job that leaves us feeling hollowed out. We all deserve to fulfill our true calling whatever that may be. At the end of the day though”non-profit” is just a tax status. The career you seek will only be satisfying if you do the deep hard work of uncovering your passions, thinking about your values and understanding yourself enough to know what makes you happy in a profound and meaningful way. If after you’ve done that work you still want to work for a non-profit, I say go for it and I’ll be happy to share my insights with you – just drop me a line.  What do you think? If you are thinking of  making a career change to work for a non-profit, what is motivating you? If you already work for a non-profit, am I off base? What insights would you add?

Showing 4 comments
  • Blessing@WorkingMomJournal

    Totally love your latest posts! I was a member of Society of Women Engineers and also sat on the Executive Board for the National Society of Black Engineers where I was the International Chair and helped plan conferences in and outside the United States. This was all volunteer work but we worked our butt off, you would think we were getting paid. Everything you described happened. I was in school at the time and I was flying to NYC every other week just to work on budgets, and at thesame time fly back to Orlando to organize meals, vendors, decorations, etc. We needed to stay within budget and I basically wore different hats just to meet that goal. At the end of the day, it was worthwhile but I stepped on toes, yelled at folks who were unappreciative of my efforts. I can definitely relate but it was that job that taught me how to be leader, a confident one, at the very young age of 21.

    • bossmomonline

      Blessing – some of the hardest work I’ve ever done has been in the non-profit sector. As a matter of fact, prior to having my son I had several volunteer board positions. They were quite literally second and third jobs for me. Eventually something had to give when I had D2 so I stepped off of those boards. Your story underscores as well that working for a non-profit, while rewarding, is not easy. You also point to another benefit which is getting alot of experience at a young age. My first real job out of graduate school in my 20s was for Legal Aid as a fundraiser and PR manager. Even though I made NO money, the experience I gained was invaluable and allowed me to go after my first big PR agency job in New York.

  • Barbara Saunders

    An issue I think does not get enough attention: non-profits have not caught up to the massive restructuring of the office professions that corporations went through in the 1980s and 1990s. Corporations in almost every industry have “professionalized” most business functions. Mid-career non-managers work as independent contributors to disciplinary and/or matrix teams. Managers are trained to manage people at a system level. Workers are accountable for results and process, largely directed by the norms of the discipline. E.g., a communicator might belong to the IABC, and follow work practices that are set by the profession itself.

    Not so in nonprofits. The normal structure is still command-and-control, with general managers who are not formally trained assigning specific tasks to workers who are not recognized as disciplinary professionals.

    If you are like me, you will find this VERY frustrating. I like to develop expertise at a high level, and subject my work to standards of excellence for a particular discipline, be that quantitative analysis for marketing or writing white papers. Management is not my thing; however, to the extent that I might like manage, I would also want to manage autonomous professional workers not supervise people in their day-to-day activities.

    • Boss Mom

      I think you make a really excellent point. Overall, the non-profit world is still professionalizing. I think you see it more in some types of non-profits than others. For instance, I work for a non-profit that for all intents and purposes acts like a management consultancy. My observation is the larger the organization, the more professionalized the organization has to be – especially if has a fee-for-service revenue model or is getting significant foundation funding (because foundations very much care about operational excellence and sustainability of the organizations they fund). But I also think you raise something very important which is about the leadership abilities of non-profit executives. I think some of that command and control style comes from having worked their way up through the ranks but not having had very much formal management training. It’s a challenge then to keep talented people who need more autonomy. I appreciate your thoughtful insight!

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