As I’ve mentioned often on Consumerism Commentary, after a a false start or two with jobs following my undergraduate studies, I started my career working for a non-profit organization involved in the arts. I followed one of my passions without considering my financial needs.
I want to be able to look back and see that despite my problems, the non-profit was a good choice for me, but I can’t honestly say that. I strongly believe in this organization’s mission, but maybe I wasn’t the right person for that kind of job.
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Working as an employee for a non-profit organization can be rewarding — often more rewarding for your conscience than for your wallet, however. I came away from my three years as a non-profit employee with skills and traits that helped me succeed in other jobs:
When you work for a non-profit, you work hard. The best non-profit organizations use their funding, often from private donors but also from the government, to invest in their programs. Human resources are often an after-thought. You can see this with non-profit rankings on sites like Charity Navigator; charitable organizations are judged on how much of their funding goes to their programs.
As a result, many non-profits lack the resources necessary to do the best job they can. Working in this type of environment, it’s easy to develop skills related to making the most out of nothing and doing more with less.
You learn to fill multiple roles. One side-effect of small administrative budgets is that there isn’t always someone to fill each unique role in the organization. Where I worked, I was the associate director of a division that related mostly with high schools, but I was also the office’s tech guy and troubleshooter, the web and database administrator, and an event planner. I often dealt with stakeholders other than the high schools.
No one in this organization would dare say, “That’s not in my job description.” For me, the most difficult part was the manual labor. I never pictured myself loading and unloading trucks, installing signage, or being a chauffeur as part of my occupation, but these were things that needed to be done, and everyone chipped in.
Talent and passion are contagious. When your occupation is built around a mission, you meet talented and passionate people who are interested in the same mission. Putting yourself in an environment where most people are motivated helps you rise to their level. Leadership differs from organization to organization, but if you have a culture of excellence and high expectations, it can be a stressful existence but it is rewarding.
You learn how to maintain high expectations in other aspects of your life. You expect to be surrounded by high-functioning adults. Life can be disappointing when you move on and realize that not everyone is as highly motivated or concerned about excellence, but when you find yourself in leadership roles, the environment of excellence can help make you a great leader.
Non-profits can force you to be frugal. Within the organization, you learn how to do more with less, and that bleeds into your personal life. Many times, it must, because you are unlikely to be paid the same salary you’d be able to garner with a private company (that is, not a non-profit organization).
There are many reasons for the lower salaries in non-profit. One I mentioned above: organizations want to devote more of their funding directly to programs instead of human resources. Non-profit executives believe that the reward of psychological fulfillment makes up for the low salaries. But non-profits simply offer lower salaries because they can. People will take the jobs. Now, you can’t always hire the best people with low salaries, and if the revolving-door employment of the organization I used to work for was any indication, great employees leave because their talents are valued by companies willing to pay much more.
Another reason non-profits can offer less money is because in many cases, people see non-profit work as their “third act.” They’ve worked a fulfilling career in some other field and are ready to retire. But they want to continue doing something rewarding with their time, and non-profit is a haven for people who have already earned their money. They aren’t looking for organizational advancement, and they aren’t looking to earn competitive income.
These challenges make it difficult to decide whether you should work for a non-profit.
I didn’t think about these concerns right out of college. I didn’t know how difficult my life was going to be; nobody warned me. Then again, even if I was aware of the consequences, I’m not sure I’d make a different decision. There are some questions you should consider before pursuing a career in non-profit.
1. Do you really believe in the organizations mission? You’re going to be putting a lot of yourself into your work. If you aren’t 100% committed to the organization’s mission, you’ll be losing a part of yourself for something you don’t really care about. At the same time, you’re gaining something important, perhaps a sense of fulfillment if you are committed to the mission. The mission will often be the excuse for your sacrifices.
2. Are you prepared for life sacrifices? My non-profit job took my weekends away from me. During certain times of the year, I worked more than 80 hours a week (without overtime pay). I had no time for the social life I would have liked to have had, and the commitment to my job negatively affected my personal relationships, especially the one with my girlfriend at the time.
3. Are you prepared for the financial sacrifices? My salary barely covered my living necessities and commuting to work. I was going further into debt each month, and it was easier for me to ignore my financial realities. By the time I was ready to make another personal sacrifice, moving away from my friends and closer to the office, where housing was much more expensive anyway, I was already halfway out the door at the job.
It’s not uncommon to see non-profit workers who come from privileged backgrounds, who rely on another family member for household income, who are living off of their retirement funds, or who are otherwise financially independent. I was taken aback the first time I met some of the people who worked or interned for one of the biggest music ensembles in the world, housed in New York City. Those interns could work for free without making any financial sacrifices, and sometimes working for a non-profit is close to working for free. Is that something you can do?
4. Are you capable of handling the demands? When I worked for a corporation later in my life, a few co-workers performed their duties with a sense of urgency. There was some kind of value in the perception that every task one pursued was important. People would rush around just to show everyone else how busy and important they believed they were. Coming from a non-profit background, it was hard for me to take that attitude seriously. In my experience, people were busy because they had to be — because they were trying to accomplish world-changing projects with a skeleton staff.
The “corporate urgency” was a joke to me — and that’s probably one reason I never fit in there. The demands in that corporate environment — demands on time, effort, and talent — were nothing compared to the work that needed to be accomplished in non-profit. If you want to work in non-profit, there’s a good chance it will consumer your life with its demands.
5. Is there anything else you could possibly do with your life to achieve fulfillment? First-year college students often hear this some time during their first few weeks: “If you can picture yourself being satisfied in any other field, this isn’t the right field for you.” I heard it when I was studying to become a music teacher. Engineers hear it, too, for different reasons. It’s even more relevant before considering a career in non-profit, especially for a college graduate with student loan debt.
The non-profit industry can be rewarding for your soul, particularly if you find an opportunity that is aligned with your passions. It isn’t an easy life for some of the most talented people who would like to pursue that type of path. Give the choice some consideration.
Updated October 21, 2015 and originally published December 9, 2013.