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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.