Tuesday, December 19, 2006


The Challenge of Working For (and Staying in) a Nonprofit Job
by pam ashlund


Why did you start working for a nonprofit? Me? In a nutshell, I joined because I found no meaning in helping someone else make money. After college I suffered a few very empty years. I worked for a property management company, and I was miserable.

I couldn't figure out how to inject meaning into my life and I figured either I start selling somebody else's shit, or I went to work helping people. It seemed like a basic "either-or" "good or evil" question. I choose the good.

But since I work in finance and management...I didn't immediately find meaning. When I did it wasn't because I was helping people (or helping the people who help people). It was because I found my passion. I LOVE teaching, coaching and mentoring (i.e managing a team and supervision). I LOVE figuring things out; automating meaningless tasks, producing fantastic and useful data, designing reports that solve problems (i.e. data mining, report writing). I LOVE driving a process past the barriers of bureaucracy, past inertia, past politics...to ACTION.

I found out that I'm a do-er. The only hitch I ran into was internal. I am driven by approval. Yes, maybe we all are...but. I found out that the things I excel at, that I really LOVE, are not really understood by too many. I exist on a quiet plane, rarely "met" by other minds. Sometimes someone catches a glimpse of my talents and when they are impressed, I just beam.

Accounting, Management and other Administrative tasks are pretty much thankless jobs. A sense of noble superiority doesn't really satisfy. And nobody is going to nominate you citizen of the year no matter how your work shines. And in nonprofits there is no such thing as a performance bonus. They are often disallowed by funding sources; or worst still, looked upon as some sort of moral lapse.

Now how is a nonprofit going to retain a talent when there is no carrot? The answer:

  1. it doesn't even get the talent to begin with; or
  2. if it does (often by getting the young and eager), it doesn't keep them.
The result? Nonprofit organizations are left with mediocre leaders who then promote themselves up the ladder. They then can't afford to leave and stay till they retire and while they are there they reduce any talent that comes there way to the lowest common denominator fearing that any talent would be a serious threat that would challenge their job security.

Do I sound burnt out? I don't feel that way. I feel passionate. I feel committed. I feel resolved to be an agent of change. I feel like challenging myself. I feel like changing the world.

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Anonymous said...


Some of the concerns you express--especially in the next-to-last paragraph--sound wearily familiar to the dynamics of the teaching profession.

Yet still I think idealists are the salt of the earth. Including you.

Happy Holidays.

The Hawk

Trucha said...

Wow! This is really two separate blog entries. With regard to your first topic, I agree and want to acknowledge that I "see" you. I like how you are about solutions and how you clear the way behind the scenes to move ideas into action. I also like how one year I tell you, "I want to try Idea A," and you do what needs to be done to make this happen. Then, the next year, I say, "Now I want to try Idea B," and you support this by, again, doing what you got to do. And then the next year after that, I say, "I think I want to go back to Idea A," and you might roll your eyes a little bit but you'll go ahead and undo the new process you created last year and then rebuild the old process that I asked you to dismantle. Although it's a bit schizophrenic, I suppose you wouldn't go along with it if you didn't ultimately believe that what I was envisioning was truly in the best interest of those we seek to serve. Of course, I also don't think I've ever switched back to Idea B after an A-B-A switch history--that would be interesting! :)

Now with regard to your second topic, that's some scary stuff. I think the part that scares me the most is the idea of the tendency for not-quite-ready-for-primetime managers to hire no one who exceeds them in education and/or skill out of fear of being eclipsed. I do see that with some folks, but, in my opinion, not all. We need to hatch a plan on getting rid of the lemons. Any ideas?

Mid-western Yovo said...

I so appreciated your thoughts here, particularly those in the second to last paragraph...I spent the first decade or so of my professional career in international development non-profits and recently transitioned out because of exactly what you describe here...and I couldn't bear the thought of being surrounded by the mediocres who had gotten where they were largely because everyone else's tolerance was less and left. I got so tired of having to hide my intelligence and ideas because those above me felt threatened. I'm still in a non-profit (though domestic) and it seems very different--I don't know if it's the exception to the rule, but my theory is that there is more room for this type of thing in international organizations because there is so much less accountability since the work is so far away, and often government funded. Not that there aren't some wonderful groups doing international work--I've learned you really just have to dig for them, and for the people within who really care and aren't just trying to earn a paycheck and appease donors.

tubu said...

This is really interesting to me. I left my Admin Director position at a domestic/intl nonprofit due to the fact that my boss was threatened when I tried to make organizational improvements to the organization and was very threatened by me in general. She surrounded herself for many years with people junior to her in age and experience, until me. With no management experience or savvy she needs help but can't get out of the way when she needs to. I'm still reeling from the experience as it was really disheartening. I'm job hunting now - do I stay in the nonprofit sector? I'm sure similar conditions exist in other sectors...right?

Anonymous said...

Wow. This hits so close to home that a co-worker actually confronted me and asked me if I had adopted a secret blog identity, and whether or not it was I who actually wrote this article. I too share the same frustration.