Why Nonprofiteers Fall In and Out of Love With Work


Not long ago I attended a birthday party and sat next to a guy I’d never met before. A hedge fund professional, this guy had volunteered extensively for years and spoke thoughtfully about his experiences. Then he said something surprising:

I find the nonprofit field fascinating. It’s filled with egomaniacs, isn’t it?

I may not be quoting verbatim, but that was his sentiment. He continued:

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In finance, it’s just really clear what we are in it for. Basically, we want to make money. But in your field, a lot of these people are ‘above’ that. There’s an ‘I’m motivated by something bigger, something better’ kind of thing. It’s like they think they’re more superior.

I chuckled. He made me think about the incredible, almost unnatural motivation that keeps nonprofiteers strongly committed to their work. That motivation puzzled, and maybe even scared, my new friend.

What drives us to the nonprofit world?
Where does this desire, which clearly isn’t money-driven, come from? In my 12 years as a nonprofiteer and leader, I’ve met, worked with, and hired many people—so I have some ideas as to the answers to these questions. For some, the desire is sparked by a life-changing, catalytic event that happened to us personally or to our loved ones. It made us more empathetic to the pain of others, to want to make sense of tragedy or adversity, to put that experience to good purpose. I’m talking about a mother starting an anti-bullying campaign after losing her son, or a sister getting a job at a mental health agency after growing up with a sibling with mental illness. Those are just a few examples.

Nonprofiteers at a fundraising event. Photo by Eric Ng.
Some iMentor nonprofiteers at a fundraiser.
Photo credit: Eric Ng.

The desire could also be born of a deep interest in political, social or natural events affecting large populations, such as riots, terrorist attacks, hurricanes or earthquakes, whether at home and abroad. Others feel connected to issues they see in their own backyard: homelessness, cancer in the young, animal abuse. There’s the cause that motivated me throughout my career: education and college access, which has a dramatic, lifelong impact on a person’s earning potential and quality of life.

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Some of us were brought up to be (or are) naturally caring, engaged citizens, and want to find work that keeps us true to that. Still others find a calling in deep love and passion for some vital issue. Skill-based professionals—those in marketing, accounting and operations— also find great jobs in the nonprofit sector because they’re looking for a change or feel connected to a cause. They, too, end up building satisfying nonprofit careers.

Row New York Staff. Photo: Row New York.

Mostly, the desire to serve or improve something bigger than ourselves brings us to nonprofit jobs—and keeps us in them. Indeed, some of us are happy only when we find our “cause.” Some may be issue-agnostic but find themselves satiated as long as they use their talents to change or improve the world in some way.

The bottom line is all these are positive, healthy reasons to work in the nonprofit field. And, by the way, the hedge fund guy was right: we do take pride in choosing something more meaningful than our own material gain. Our work betters the world; knowing that it has a far-reaching impact makes us feel amazing. It is our bragging right—we’ve earned it!

What drives us away from the nonprofit world?
Despite their passion for nonprofit work, nonprofiteers are not always happy. A 2011 survey conducted by the staffing firm Professionals for NonProfits found that out of 3,500 nonprofiteers in New York and the Washington, D.C. metropolitan areas, 70 percent reported their jobs either to be disappointing or only somewhat fulfilling. In fact, 25 percent of those nonprofiteers said they were considering looking for a job outside the nonprofit world!

In my observation, what we tolerate—low pay and long hours—in exchange for impactful work can begin to feel crushing after a few years. This is especially true when the realities of life, like student loans, start to become overwhelming. Nonprofiteers want families—and financial goals, like buying a house or saving for retirement, also enter the mix.

It’s no secret that nonprofiteers earn salaries that are a fraction of what our friends make—and no bonuses! Yet our work is as hard as, and in many ways harder than, jobs that pay big bucks. At the end of a very long day, we don’t go home in a company limo or order dinner on the company credit card.

True, a nonprofiteer joins the field because she loves “the work.” But she finds that, as she gets promoted with more management responsibilities, the farther she gets from the type of work she signed up to do. Instead of teaching art to preschoolers, suddenly she’s in a cubicle writing grants and meeting other adults all day.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the idealistic nonprofiteer is when she encounters demoralizing influences like the dreaded “mission creep”—that is, when organizations take on new activities that pull attention from its core mission, something that usually occurs when funding is tight. Other discouraging situations are toxic cultures, mismanagement and questionable ethics. In the PNP survey, four of 10 nonprofiteers reported that the factors they deemed most essential—“respect, trust and support by management” and “a compelling mission”—were not found in their workplaces. Facing these difficulties, nonprofiteers question their life decisions and choices.

Photo by Celine Patel
Photo by Celine Patel.

It makes sense: when your motivation is depleted, you no longer want to run that Saturday workshop. You’d rather have brunch with friends and do yoga. Or coach your kid’s soccer team. You get tired of eating the cold lunch you brought from home because you can’t afford to buy lunch. You get tired of fighting with your partner for attending another fundraiser on a Wednesday night. It’s not even like you get paid enough to outsource the housework you have no time to do. There is so much you want to do and have to do but never have time to do because your job seems so important.

Richard M. Clerkin and Joanne G. Carman sum it up beautifully in “Snap Poll: Gauging ‘Public Service Motivation’ to work for nonprofits” published in the Philanthropy Journal in 2013:

While money may not be the main motive, it is still important; more than two-thirds agree or strongly agree that a paycheck motivates them. As one respondent eloquently stated, ‘More and more, the economics of my work interfere with my capacity to focus. The pay and personal time management (prioritizing family vs. work/passionate pursuits) are constant challenges.’

Emerging Competition
Not only are we facing the challenges described above, there is also emerging competition from other sectors for our talent. Nonprofits are not the only entities seeing the “bigger than self” purpose as vital to their mission and success. In his book The Purpose Economy, Aaron Hurst, founder of the Taproot Foundation and founder and CEO of Imperative, a career development platform that helps people connect with purpose at work, says this:

The line between government, nonprofits, and companies is blurring, and every sector is seeing purpose at the core of their future.

Some well-known examples of “purpose-driven” organizations, which Hurst cites, are Facebook, which enables self-expression on a massive scale; and Kickstarter, which now facilitates more arts funding than the National Endowment for the Arts. Then there are “low-profit limited companies” (L3Cs), which combine profit-making with social missions. Etsy, Warby Parker, Patagonia and Seventh Generation are among the examples Hurst offers.

The appeal of these types of organizations is especially obvious to Millennials, who tend to prefer job fulfillment over financial reward, and for nonprofiteers who have long operated this way. But these organizations don’t just offer rewards for the soul. They are new, sexier and potentially more lucrative opportunities.

So how can we cultivate healthy, happy and effective nonprofiteers? My next piece will explore my answer to this question—and I’d love to hear your ideas as well! What have you seen work well and not so well to retain and grow the best nonprofiteers? Drop me a comment or connect with me on Twitter @carolinekimoh.

  • Stan Melamed

    I do want to speak about what makes people leave non profit jobs. The article talks mostly about money but there are other factors.

    From personal experience and seeing friend’s non profits, there is a huge lack of knowledge about what to do with technology (there are of course non profits that do tech really well, but they are few and far in between). This is more for tech oriented companies. I would have remained at my old company, had there been a technological road map. However that map needs to be laid out by a technological person.
    In majority of non profits the person on top is the sales person. They sell the mission, it’s very rare for them to also know enough technology to be able to define a path for technology specifically. However there is a significant difference between being able to sell something to someone and making sure it has the the support it needs to have it working as well as it can.
    Unlike people that work directly with delivering the mission the techy people (and operations people) provide support to the people that deliver the mission. They need to feel like they are accomplishing something as well. That’s what I didn’t feel. There were so many things that just screamed in my head that 40 hours of my work would save 20 people an hour every week (and that adds up quick). However other issues were prioritized based more on the ‘selling point’ to market it for donations. Those frustrations just built up, because I did not feel I was working on what helps the quality of the thing.

    Going back to the first quote, I do think there is a bit of ‘better than you’ attitude that nonprofiteers sometimes give off. For me, it doesn’t matter what person does, by default, no one is better than anyone else. I don’t think that article answered that comment much. Whether non profit or for profit – sometimes it’s the same people. I’ve had friends that simply never thought about non-profits. It just didn’t enter their sidevision, so they didn’t think about it.

    With all of that said, I do plan to go back to non profit but likely in a better management position. That’s the only way I feel I can make an impact.

  • Caroline Kim Oh

    From Chris Chavez

    Though I still consider myself a nonprofit professional, it wasn’t until I took a hiatus in startup land, and then came back to the field through a public-private partnership that I felt secure financially, and supported. The latter feeling came from doing my own thing… I could finally believe in management! And, in this way, I do feel that a healthy egoism goes a long way.

    In a weird way, the hedge fund guy you quoted at the beginning of your piece got it right. All young nonprofit professionals feel ambitious to make a difference, to allow their egos the satisfaction of having a “real impact.”

    We’ve learned to accept that nonprofit culture demands these egos be subdued to the greater mission. Fair enough. But, let’s also celebrate them whenever possible. Professionals, inexperienced and experienced, should be allowed to feel ambitious egoism in their work. I mean, that’s the point! It feels good to make a difference, because of self-sacrifice, and because of self-satisfaction.

    Richard Branson says, “train your people well enough so that they leave, treat them well enough so that they won’t want to.” I think many nonprofits can learn from this organizational and professional growth philosophy.

    For example, my fiancé works for New York Foundling. They have an amazing support program for their professionals, great pay, and offer tons of professional development options that meaningfully launch their workforce into skill areas they feel passionate about. It helps that they are well funded, of course. But, the ethos of organizations like New York Foundling doesn’t need money to exist.

    Thanks again for amplifying your voice in this conversation.


  • Caroline Kim Oh

    From an anonymous nonprofit executive director

    I read this and found super interesting. Not going to lie – it made me revisit why I’m in this field. I usually gave people a trope about ‘wanting meaning’ or ‘changing the world’ but that’s too simple and superficial. It was that in the beginning, because I was egotistical and naïve about my place in the world (wanting to be the type of person who wanted meaning, more than actually wanting meaning).

    And now it’s evolved to a point where I care about the people I work with, work for, and enjoy the blocking and tackling of managing an organization that’s good (or at least not bad). Much less grand, but also much more ‘real’. I’ve had a lot of people solicit career advice about switching into NFP and I see that I was in their shoes one day. I think I’ll try to share my lesson that ‘changing the world’ can be really narcissistic (i.e. I know what the world needs), but if you approach ‘changing the world’ as in, changing the small world you’re in of one-on-one relationships – that is much more genuine and satisfying. And you don’t need to be in nonprofit, or anywhere else, specifically, to be able to have that type of impact. Just be kind, gracious, fair, etc.

  • Caroline Kim Oh

    From John C, Psychotherapist.

    “Caroline, I read your article, and find you slid past one of the more significant issues that pertain to my field.

    Many individuals in the non-profit world are in one of the helping professions. In particular, the social work profession represents the “feet on the street” working to deal with many of our society’s more significant personal problems. Whether it is child abuse, alcoholism or drug addiction, dysfunctional families, major mental illnesses or any other arena, those in the helping professions cannot help but be impacted by the seriousness and sometimes the hopelessness of the issues with which their clients must deal on a regular basis. Burn out is not uncommon, unless we find ways to take care of ourselves.

    One can add in the low pay, the long hours and many other disadvantages as ways people fall in and out of love with being a social worker. Yet the one that stands as the most important to me is the constant exposure to the seamy underside of our society, and the people who are impacted by it.”

  • Thank you for posting this thought-provoking article. In addition to all the reasons listed in the article for leaving a non-profit, I’ll add risk management to the list. We have some highly skilled professionals managing clients that have a multitude of problems, but we also have unskilled, poorly paid workers that require much supervision. I’ve had several conversations with other nonprofit leaders about opening that morning paper and worrying about whether their agency will be on the front page. I will also second the technology comments above, and add that as a risk as well. Many nonprofits are not keeping up with technology and that poses risks to agencies and their clients.

  • Caroline Kim Oh

    From an anonymous nonprofit talent professional:

    “Personally I found the anonymous executive director’s thoughts really interesting. His or her realization that the original intention was less about wanting to change the world than about wanting to be the sort of person who wanted to change the world – I think that may be my truth as well. At 21, I didn’t really have any professional ambition in particular, but I liked the idea of being the nonprofit/activist type. I think that was the identity I wanted to wear, more so than it being the thing that truly motivated me.

    Ultimately it stuck, but at this point in my career I can see myself being happy in a for-profit with a great culture, great leadership, and whose product or service I stand behind. S/he said something about how changing the world one person or interaction at a time might actually be more meaningful, and I agree. If I went to work for a company that provided some sort of customer service, and I knew that I could help make sure that people’s interactions with those customer service professionals were really positive, that could be enough to keep me motivated, particularly if I were making more money. It’s an interesting thought.”

  • Marina Zhavoronkova

    Non-profits often face the balancing act of delivering an impactful program or service and satisfying the wishes of the funders, sponsors, and other folks that may not be directly involved in the work that you’re doing. So in essence: how do you keep doing what you do best and still keep the lights on in your office? Although everyone involved may have the best intentions, those working most directly with the population you wish to serve are often several managers away from the decision-makers in the office. This – and I think this can often lead to what you term “mission creep” – is what I believe often makes some of us leave the non-profit sector. If you’re going to do a job that you’re not stupendously well-paid for, you should at least feel like you’re making a significant impact in somebody’s life.

    I find the concept of 50C3s and other “social good” for-profits really interesting, because it actually suggests that by doing good you can make a tidy profit. It seems much more meaningful than CSR, because it’s actually built in to the company’s mission. I’m curious to see how this evolves.

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