If you’ve made the decision to work at a nonprofit, it’s likely because you want your job to have more meaning than just a paycheck. The pervasive narrative around working for a nonprofit is that we agree to exchange low wages for the privilege of working for a cause that we care deeply about. Our assumption is that, because we’ve all signed up for the same thing in pursuit of making a difference, we have a shared understanding of the non-financial ways in which we expect to be compensated and appreciated.
But I’m here to tell you: We’re going to have a much better experience if we do the job we are paid to do.
I thought about titling this post: “Kinder nonprofit leadership through ruthless capitalism." But it’s not just about leadership – it’s also about being a more generous team member and a more satisfied employee, regardless of your place in the organization.
I’ve seen a number of articles going around lately arguing that money shouldn’t be the most important thing about a job, and that people often regret leaving jobs with good benefits and supportive work cultures for a marginally higher salary but less meaning. In the world of mission-driven organizations, we are often much more willing to sacrifice salary for the sake of working on something we care about. But convincing ourselves that the money is not important is not only wrong, it sets us up for failure and resentment.
The money matters
A friend of mine was recently trying to negotiate taking vacation days during an especially busy time for her organization. Her manager told her that it was a problem for the rest of the team for her to take that time off, because they would get behind on their deliverables, and there wasn’t someone prepped to take over her role during the time she would be gone. She decided to get ahead on the project by working overtime over the holidays and preparing handover materials so that everything would be documented for her teammate to easily step in – and she succeeded in accomplishing all of that, while everyone else was on holiday. She came back to her manager to say that she had worked many hours of uncompensated overtime to take care of the things he had expressed concern about, and asked if she could now book her tickets for her time off. He responded,
“Well, you didn’t have to do that.” And refused.
And when she asked about getting paid for the overtime hours instead, she was told: “If you really care about the mission, the money shouldn’t matter.”
Why would you work unpaid overtime? We all do it, all the time. From our perspective, we might feel like if we don’t work extra to finish everything that needs to be done, we’re letting down the team and letting down our mission. But when we volunteer extra hours, the organization is not getting the message that the work in question can’t be done in the time and budget allotted to it. Instead, it’s getting the message that the allotted resources are sufficient, because everything is ticking along just fine. The organization has no way of evaluating the human/morale cost of anything extra that we give.
Don’t get me wrong. There are good times and good reasons for working beyond your hours and beyond your scope – sometimes. And there are great bosses and great organizations that find ways to protect and value their people. But this is in spite of being set up to fail, not because of it.
When we give away our labour for free, we are communicating that a project can be reasonably expected to require less money (waged hours) than it truly does. And that creates unsustainable projects and impossible (un)deliverables.
A contractual relationship brings joy
Most of the time, nonprofit employees are drawn from an existing membership pool (or at least, people are usually interested in applying to work for an organization with which they already have at least some affinity). This can help create a strong work culture, but it also often creates a situation where employees conflate their role with their sense of self. When roles are required to change because of funding, revisioning, or whatever else, that conflation makes the change feel like a personal affront.
An employment contract specifies what you are hired to do, not who you are hired to be (and if that isn’t clear in your contract, you need to talk to HR). This does NOT mean that you can’t love your job or fulfill it with all of your passion and inspiration! But it does mean a couple of very important things:
1. Your job is not your self
When we are working on something we are deeply connected to, it can feel like we are building an extension of ourselves. If for whatever reason we are prevented from continuing that work, it can feel like we are being cut off from that part of ourselves, or like that part of our soul/heart/personality is not appreciated. It can feel like an attack on or loss to our personal identity. This can send us down a spiral of low self-esteem and loss of heart to continue the work. But the more we can differentiate our personal passion for our work from our contractually defined responsibilities toward it, the more we will be able to continue to nourish that passion even through unexpected changes in our professional relationship to it.
2. A layoff is not an insult
When you care deeply about your coworkers and your work, you may feel that the organization owes it to you to care about you in a similar personal way. The reality is that while organizations do care about the happiness and well-being of their employees, the organization’s ultimate responsibility will always be to its mission – which almost always means to its funding. This can be painful for the organization too, because in all likelihood they do care about you at an individual level! Knowing that a decision based on the needs and realities of the organization will be a very personal hurt does not feel good for your manager either. Relating to the job as it is defined by your contract can help decisions like project cancellations, layoffs, etc. feel much less personal on both sides of the interaction. And in turn, it can help us as employees feel more empowered to set boundaries that keep our work healthy and mutually beneficial.
Build your personal relationships, absolutely. But build them around the professional responsibilities defined in your contract, and when things feel ambiguous, fall back on that clarity.
Heroes can’t go the distance
My mother-in-law says that if she ever feels like a project will fall apart without her, she just leaves right on the spot – because why spend energy holding together something that is relying on individual heroism to continue? At first I thought this was a pretty brutal way to move through a life of dedicated volunteerism (which she does).
But I’ve come to believe that allowing something unsustainable to fall apart is actually incredibly generous. It’s generous to your teammates, who may feel that they too should be expected to perform heroic acts of overtime as a regular feature of their jobs. It’s generous to your organization, which may have no other opportunity of understanding what is truly required for success. It’s generous to yourself, since boundaries and self-care are essential for your continued happiness as a working person.
And last, but certainly not least, it’s generous to your mission, to whatever cause you are inspired to be a hero for. If you burn out, and your team burns out, and your unsustainable project goes down in underfunded flames, ultimately it’s the cause that suffers. And making a difference to the cause – that’s why we all agreed to do this in the first place, right?