People who are drawn to meaningful work are
often drawn to the nonprofit sector. I am inspired daily by my coworkers and interviewees who have made (or are hoping to make) a career that serves the greater good. However, spend any amount of time in a nonprofit organization of ANY kind and you will find that burnout and turnover is high.
There are many things that can cause us to become jaded and cynical (and even quit) in this line of work, but most of them I think boil down to two things: 1) when you're not making the impact you hoped to make, and 2) organizational disillusionment. These can be experienced separately, but when you combine them?! That's when a lot of folks hit the door.
When you're not making the impact you hoped to make
I'll admit that I have been disappointed and disgruntled at times in my years of working in the nonprofit world. I used to do mediation with victims and offenders in the court system and there was never any shortage of tragedy and brokenness on my caseload. I know I did my best work when I was able to connect and be present with my clients, but over time it was increasingly difficult to find empathy, sympathy, or compassion for the very people I was facilitating a process that should supposedly generate empathy, sympathy, and compassion.
Most of us understand that any time you're new to the work force or an organization, you're going to have to pay your dues, get the coffee, do the filing, or whatever. You might be stuck behind a desk answering phones when you want to be working directly with clients. Or you might be "in the trenches" of direct service when you really want to be in the closed-door meetings helping to plot strategy.
While frustrating, we tend to bear with these challenges better than the complexity of working with people who have endured trauma or addiction—the woman you've worked with who goes back to her abusive husband, or the recovering addict who dies after a relapse. When your job, day after day, is to pick up the human wreckage of failed systems, it can cause vicarious or secondary trauma. The psychic toll of some nonprofit work is something many of us are unprepared for (even when we expect it!).
Of course, not all nonprofit work involves working with trauma victims, but the fact that we are more likely to be emotionally tied to the mission comes with its own perils. When we closely align with the work, it's incredibly difficult to see our efforts fail to achieve the results we hoped for. We might intellectually know that we won't change the world overnight, but it can very nearly break our hearts when we run into (what might seem to be) relentless opposition on all fronts. It may feel impossible to retain our hope and idealism in the face of such challenges.
What can be done about this? Fortunately, there has been a lot of research into prevention of compassion fatigue/secondary trauma/vicarious trauma. These factors are aimed at people working with trauma victims, but I believe they can apply to anyone working in a mission-oriented field.
Protective factors include:
Things your organization can do: Proper caseload distribution, supervisory support, providing safe working conditions, and training. Even pay raises have been shown to increase a sense of success and decrease burnout and vicarious trauma.
Education: Interestingly, the higher the education level, the lower the rates of vicarious or secondary trauma. Folks with master's degrees fared better than people with baccalaureate's degrees.
Personal coping factors: Participating in leisure activities, rest, socializing, physical activity, journaling. You know, basic self-care.
Spirituality: According to this research, "counselors with a strong sense of spirituality are more likely to accept existential realities and their inability to change the occurrence of these realities … counselors' acceptance of these existential realities allows them to be more present with their clients."
If you find yourself feeling frustrated or experiencing burnout, it's important to be proactive. I personally find it helpful to talk to a seasoned coworker who is familiar with the work and has weathered some of the same storms. In my experience, the greatest benefit of nonprofit work isn't necessarily what you do, but who you're doing it with.
If psychic burnout is bad, organizational disillusionment has been the nail in the casket of many a nonprofit career. I think many people can weather the disappointment of not making the impact they had hoped for. However, when you follow what you think is a calling to enter into a field, a system, or an institution that you believe in and are willing to sacrifice for, you run the risk—nay, the certainty—that YOU WILL BE DISAPPOINTED.
I know! I've been there. So, believe me, I get it.
The disappointment we feel when we are let down by people or organizations we care for and respect can be confusing at best and infuriating at worst.
BUT … at the risk of being insensitive, I'm going to engage in some tough love here.
Business is business
We can't talk about organizational disillusionment without talking about the financial realities of nonprofit work. The good news is that nonprofits actually can make a profit. The term "nonprofit" should describe your organization's tax status, not their business model. There are plenty of organizations that have secure funding and wise stewardship, even when the economy is going through its ups and downs. The bad news is when you work in a nonprofit, you will forever be at the whim of whatever funding your organization is able to secure.
Therefore, life in the nonprofit sector can be uncertain. Grants, donations, government funding … all of that stuff can go away after an election or a recession or whatever million and one factors cause people to stop their charitable giving.
If you or a family member has ever been through layoffs or had the funding for their job threatened or cut, it teaches you some things. No matter how warm and fuzzy and important your work is and how much you are valued, IT'S STILL A BUSINESS! Don't be lured into a false sense of job security or a certain kind of treatment because you're working with fellow Christians or with people who vote the same way you do.
You can't control the future or the elections or recessions, but you can be ready. It's always a good idea to have your resume up-to-date no matter where you work, but I would suggest that it's extra important for someone who wants to work in the nonprofit world. I am NOT suggesting that you live in a perpetual job search, but giving your resume or Curriculum vitae a quick look every six months (especially early on in your career) is a good strategy as well. Furthermore, you should ALWAYS continue to develop your professional networks.
Simply put, you do NOT have to be at the mercy of the whims and vagaries of the economy. Even in the midst of uncertainty, you can choose to be the captain of your own ship.
Managing your expectations
As mission-driven individuals, we are willing to forgo a bigger paycheck to work for a cause larger than ourselves. We are likely surrounded by other people willing to do the same thing, and unfortunately, this can SOMETIMES lead us to create for ourselves a little bubble of idealism and naivete.
Nonprofit workers hold coworkers and employers to a higher standard. And maybe they should! I'm not here to argue that. What I am here to argue is that you are setting yourself up for disillusionment, burnout, and/or a crisis of faith if you expect any human or human institution to always live up to its stated ideals.
A wise coworker once told me she deals with this aspect of nonprofit work by shifting her mindset. No matter where she works, people would still occasionally disappoint her. Decisions would still be made that she disagrees with. The grass is always greener and all of that. Furthermore, holding on to the pieces of her work that she finds meaning in is how she has learned to manage her expectations.
Despite the rather depressing stuff we've talked about here, the reasons you took that nonprofit job STILL EXIST. I'll leave you with these "paradoxical commandments." I love this so much I wish I would have written them myself.
Bottom line: When you get to the point where you can no longer contribute to the organization in a positive way, then it's time to leave.
Until then, Don't. Give. Up.
THE PARADOXICAL COMMANDMENTS FOR THE NONPROFIT PROFESSIONAL
The years and energy you spend working toward a vision may be forgotten and credit may go to those who come after you. Work toward your vision anyway.
The life-changing programs and organizations you build may be destroyed by the whims of those with resources and influence. Build life-changing programs and organizations anyway.
The community you love and work hard to strengthen may occasionally doubt your motives and attack you. Work hard to strengthen this community anyway.
The people you help may never understand or appreciate the hours you put in or other sacrifices you make. Help people anyway.
When you fully engage in conversations about race, gender, disability, and other identities, you may make mistakes, get misinterpreted, or get hurt. Fully engage in these conversations anyway.
If you work to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, you may get stonewalled or punished by those with power and privilege. Work to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion anyway.
If you take risks to hire or invest in the communities and individuals who have been most affected by injustice or those who may not conform to society's arbitrary standards, you may get burned in the short run. Take these risks anyway.
Openly share your failures and lessons learned, and people may look down on you and use your words against you. Openly share your failures and the lessons you gain anyway.
If you speak up against unjust philosophies and practices, you may lose donors, funders, colleagues, and other supporters. Speak up against injustice anyway.
Many volunteers, board members, donors, funders, community members, and colleagues are frustrating to work with. Appreciate their efforts and find the good in them anyway.
If you work hard and do things ethically, you may get surpassed by less competent people and organizations with privilege, connections, or flexible ethics. Work hard and do things ethically anyway.
If you take the high road, you may get attacked by those who take the low road, and you may not be able to defend yourself. Take the high road anyway.
Trusting and collaborating with other organizations may lead to your organization being used. Have faith in and find opportunities for effective partnerships anyway.
Our sector has many flaws. The systems we work within are imperfect, and the game favors some and leaves behind others. Work within this imperfect reality anyway, even as you work to change it.
For all your years of effort, and possibly a lifetime of dedication, you may only be able to lay one stepping stone on a path that requires a thousand. Lay down that one stepping stone anyway.
The world, including your friends, family, and community, may never say "Thank you!" for all the good you do for it. Do good for the world anyway.