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A man sits at a desk cluttered with papers and boxes A man sits at a desk cluttered with papers and boxes

6 Tips on How to Avoid Being Screwed by a Non-Profit

By Anonymous

A man sits at a desk cluttered with papers and boxes

So you’ve just graduated from college and you want to change the world. Good for you. The non-profit sector seems like a natural place for a justice-minded person such as yourself, and nonprofits are almost always hiring because the turnover rate is so high. But you may find the social justice industry to be… a little unjust. Here are a few tips and tricks for how to avoid being exploited by a nonprofit.

  1. Don’t work at one. Seriously. Working at a non-profit generally involves at least some level of exploitation. (When was the last time you saw a non-profit with a union?) If this doesn’t deter you, figure out what you’re willing to give up: Is it sleep? Weekends? Seeing your friends? Most non-profit workers do not work 9-5. Working nights and weekends is common. Paid overtime is not. Non-profits tend to make you feel like if you are not willing to work 24/7 then you are not “down for the cause.” That’s bullshit. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel like you’re not “down enough” because you are not willing to sacrifice your well-being for “the movement.” People who don’t take care of themselves burn out and often become jaded and bitter. You can’t sustain “the movement” if you don’t sustain yourself.
  2. Given that working for a non-profit involves making some sacrifices, make sure you’re working on issues you actually care about, not just ones that sound like they “could be interesting.” Do you want to spend your birthday at a training about environmental impact reports? Unless you want to change the world through city planning, the answer should be no. Every job involves doing some stuff that you don’t want to do, but the boring stuff should at least be training you in some small way for the career that you actually want.
  3. Set boundaries. A boundary could be, “I don’t work through my lunch break,” or “Tuesday night is for time with my kids/partner/aging parents.” It’s not always going to be possible, but seeing how hard it is to establish and maintain your boundaries may give you some sense of whether this is a job you want to be at long-term. Sometimes there is just no one else to do the work that needs to be done. Sometimes no one else wants to do the work because it’s unglamorous and that’s why they hired you, the unofficial custodian with the 4.0 GPA. If someone does have to cover for you, make sure you take them out to lunch to let them know how much you appreciate it. Hopefully, you can set boundaries without it creating more work for others. If you can’t, that speaks to the organization’s inherent unsustainability, not any personal flaws on your part.
  4. Be working toward something else. Use every opportunity to network that you can. Use every opportunity to learn new skills that you have. If you meet people who have jobs that look much better than yours, take them out to coffee (preferably not during work) and ask them how they got it. Connecting with people on LinkedIn is a great way to find out who you know that works in a field that you want to work in, and who they might be able to introduce you to that can open up doors for you in that industry.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up for hating your job.  It’s natural to hate being exploited, even if it’s for a really good cause. Figure out what it is about your job that you hate so you’ll know how to avoid falling into the same trap next time. If you hate your job because your boss is a sadist, look for telltale signs when you go on future interviews. I had a boss tell me at my interview that I would end up doing a lot of the things that no one else wanted to do, and then laughed. It’s one thing to say, “We’re gonna give you jobs we wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.” It’s another to cackle about it in front of me while we’re still in the interview.
  6. If one nonprofit is not the right fit, another one might be. There are many ways to combat whatever social ill you’re fighting. I took a job because I was passionate about racial justice only to find that doing data entry “for racial justice” still made me want to gouge my eyes out. I might have been happier at the same organization if I worked in the communications department because it would have allowed me to be a little more creative. But I would probably be much happier at an organization that actually believed that art and culture are crucial tools for the racial justice movement, because those are the things I really care about. Of course, the trick is not getting stuck doing data entry there, either.

If I haven’t yet convinced you to turn around and apply for a job at Coca-Cola or Google with a shiny 401K, here are some things you should know about picking your poison. 

Small orgs vs. big orgs …

Perks of working at a small organization:

  • Small organizations are often less hierarchical. If you don’t like taking orders, and want to feel like your opinion matters, a small organization might be the way to go.
  • Positions here tend to be less specialized. Because everyone does everything, there is often a lot of skill-sharing, which allows you to try your hand at a lot of things and find out what you like and what you are good at.

Downsides of working at a small organization:

  • Small organizations are often under-resourced. They generally offer few benefits and little pay.
  • Additionally, because everyone does everything, YOU have to do everything, whether you like it and are good at it or not. You may sometimes find yourself over your head with very little guidance or support because everyone is stretched thin. When I was just a shy nineteen-year-old working at an anti-violence nonprofit, I accompanied a woman to court to file a restraining order against her boyfriend because our Director of Victim Services was busy. At a bigger non-profit, someone in my position might say, “That’s above my pay grade,” which is nonprofit-speak for, “I am in no way qualified to do that.” At a small organization you just do it because it has to be done.

Perks of working at a big organization:

  • Benefits, benefits, benefits. Usually when an organization gets to be a certain size it has to provide health care, dental care, and sometimes even vision insurance to its employees. Big organizations also tend to pay more to “attract the best talent.”
  • Big organizations tend to be more stratified. So, if you have the privilege of not being at the very bottom of the nonprofit ladder, you at least have the comfort of knowing someone else’s job sucks more than yours.

Downsides of working at a big organization:

  • If you are at the bottom – and if you’re fresh out of college with a BA, you probably will be – nobody cares what you have to say, they just want you to shut up and make the coffee. It might have been your academic excellence, student leadership, and bright-eyed ambition that got you in the door, but once you’re inside, people find those qualities annoying at best and a liability at worst. If you mention your earlier achievements, people might think you think you’re better than them, or better than the job that they’ve given you. Accept the fact that you’re overqualified and shut up, or leave. Or start a brilliant side business that will eventually allow you to leave. I once worked with a guy that had a business selling yellow dildos on the side. True story.
  • A lot of times at large organizations there is surprisingly little room for growth or professional development. A lot of orgs prefer to hire from outside rather than promote from within. And because everyone’s job is so specific, you may not be qualified to do anything other than what you’re already doing or learn anything more interesting for a long time. Sometimes when you ask the people above you to teach you things, they feel threatened and think that you’re out for their job. When it comes to learning new skills and tasks you have to be satisfied with the crumbs that fall off your superiors’ plates because they are often too busy to help you.

That said, you should still ask for work that interests and challenges you, especially if you’re a pro at the work you already have. Most of this is advice for how to survive in a HOSTILE non-profit environment. While most of them are dysfunctional in some way or another, some dysfunction is more benign that others. You can find good apples at nearly every organization (maybe not in your department) who can mentor you and help you get to where you want to go in your career (or at least vent with you over coffee far from the office). But be careful to whom you disclose your frustration. I confided in a co-worker that I had some social anxiety about going to my first work social event (in part because I was young, brown and queer, and most of my coworkers were older, straight, and married.) The next day I came in my boss called me out on skipping the event and knew exactly why I hadn’t come (thanks to my loose-lipped co-worker).

Types of non-profits:

  • Direct service: These jobs are often in either charities or government agencies. They may have caseworkers trying to help individuals find jobs and housing or help them access government benefits like disability and unemployment. These kinds of jobs may put you in constant contact with people who are down on their luck in ways you can’t even imagine, and they may take it out on you. Not everyone is cut out for this, and that’s OK. You can only be around others’ trauma so much before it consumes you. That said, this work is super super crucial, and hopefully you get to see the tangible results of it every day. Occupational hazards include compassion fatigue.
  • Grassroots organizing: These jobs often involve canvassing door-to-door or calling people at home to get them to come out to protests. The pay and benefits tend to be pretty meager and the hours tend to be pretty long. Plus, you need pretty thick skin to deal with the constant rejection of the people you are trying to “empower.” The plus side is that you are basically the frontline of the social justice movement, addressing the root causes of poverty and injustice by exposing them. Next to you, other non-profit workers look like a bunch of bumbling bureaucrats waiting on their next check. Occupational hazards may include jail time.
  • Intermediaries: These organizations generally don’t deal with folks “on the ground.” Sometimes, they don’t even interface with the communities that they are trying to empower, and at worst their work can’t even be explained to a person without a college degree. If you have grown-up responsibilities, need healthcare, or no longer see getting tear-gassed as “sexy,” this might be the job for you. You will probably spend a lot of time sitting at your desk and in meetings. Community organizations will not necessarily like you. That’s OK. You’ve got your eye on the “bigger picture.” Occupational hazards may include carpal tunnel and ever-expanding buttocks.
  • Foundations: I have never personally reached this echelon of the non-profit hierarchy, so I’m speculating here. Foundation workers (especially grant officers) hold the purse strings in the non-profit world, so everyone will be nice to you, but they also want something from you. Foundation workers tend to be the most polished (no hoodies and jeans at work) and probably spend the most time in air-conditioning. Foundation workers are the gatekeepers who decide what issues and organizations get funded in a particular funding cycle. These decisions can often make or break an organization that hasn’t had the forethought to diversify its funding stream (a.k.a. not getting all of its money from one or two rich guys trying to avoid paying taxes). Occupational hazards may include lack of street cred.

In conclusion, if you must work at a non-profit, try to work at one that whose issues are actually close to your heart, where you like your co-workers and don’t find yourself working long hours alone (unless that’s how you roll). Before I left my old job, I thought that because I was young, queer, brown, and hardheaded, I would run into the same problems anywhere else I went. Fortunately, I was able to find a non-profit job where I felt respected, got along with my boss, and had a lot of opportunities to network and develop new skills. 

Hopefully now that you know a few of the red flags, you can make an informed decision about who you want to sell your labor to. Or figure out how to work for yourself.



P.S. You can learn more about the non-profit industrial complex and its discontents in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence.

This is the first piece in a series of advice columns from {Young}ist writers … stay tuned.

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May 15, 2013

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