What It is Actually Like To Work For A Nonprofit

Each morning my alarm clock rings and I am eager to get to work. That’s not something most people can say with a straight face, but most people don’t get to work for a nonprofit. I look forward to the challenges and variety my job brings, which I prepared for for some time.

I have a degree from Northern Illinois University in Community Leadership and Civic Engagement which is just too many words for nonprofit studies. I’ve put that degree to work for the past couple of years at both a community foundation and a human health and services organization. In my short tenure, I have seen wild misconceptions about what nonprofits do and what it is like to work at one.

Let me start by defining what I mean by “nonprofit.” In The United States the IRS has given special designation to organizations that provide some sort of social good as free from certain forms of taxes. The reason is essentially those organizations provide some service that the government may have to provide otherwise, so they get a break for saving the government money. There are dozens of different tax designations that are considered “nonprofits” but the most common is 501c3, which are charities that you can donate money to and write off on your personal taxes.

Nonprofits are equally different and similar to businesses. Some are museums or education based, some are professional networks or hospitals, and some are even sports clubs. What they all have in common is that they’re privately owned like a business. However, they don’t have any one owner that benefits from the business; instead, they have a board of directors that governs them and receives no pay. Nonprofits also need to function somewhat like a regular business financially. The lights still need to be turned on, after all. They’re different from business in that they also exist to serve some common good, so we say they have a “double bottom line:” they must be financially stable and serve the community, especially those that are disadvantaged.

Now that we’ve cleared up what a nonprofit actually is, let me set some things straight about what it’s like to work for one.


Our balanced budget isn’t zero dollars

A nonprofit’s goal is not to break even at the end of the year. The goal is actually to make a small surplus for the next year to come. “But it’s a nonprofit!” you protest. That idea of no profit comes from the fact that no owners can profit from the organization’s existence. A nonprofit is still a business and if Cabaret taught us anything it’s that “money makes the world go round.”

I make a salary and can eat more than ramen

I was astounded the first time someone said, “You want to work for a nonprofit? Isn’t that volunteering?” Some small nonprofits are entirely volunteer-run, that’s true, but most nonprofits have at least some paid staff. In fact, most nonprofit employees from lower staff to mid management make comparable salaries to their for-profit counterparts. Once you hit upper management the salaries drop off on the comparison, but I won’t get up on that soapbox. If you want to know why I don’t think it’s crazy for an executive director to make $75,000 or even $100,000 a year, then watch this awesome TedTalk by Dan Pallotta. You know, you want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it . . .But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you’re considered a parasite yourself.”

My days are not sunshine and puppies

I work on the administrative side of a nonprofit. I do things like revise forms, submit payroll, take client complaints, and pay bills. Not every organization is helping sick kids or lost puppies and even those organizations have someone working a less than fuzzy job. Nevertheless, my job is much better for me than any for-profit job because I can get behind why I’m doing those seemingly mundane things. I’m not selling paper or making back alley deals, I’m helping people get the mental health care and other support that they really need.

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No two days are the same

This can be said about a lot of jobs, but I feel it is especially true in nonprofits. We serve diverse clientele and provide a lot of services that for-profits don’t because they are not profitable or desirable. One day I might be gearing up for a fundraiser and the next day I may be painting counseling rooms. Some days are painfully quiet and other days I cry at the thought of another meeting or phone call.

My job is (ironically) taxing

I’ve just spent several paragraphs comparing my job to any business job, but at the end of the day, it’s not. I lie awake some nights worried sick over children my coworkers help investigate for child abuse. I feel nauseated with guilt over not being able to help everyone that asks for it. Not to mention that an uncomfortable number of people you do help are completely ungrateful. It’s hard not to throw your hands up some days when you’ve worked countless hours to help someone who turns around and says, “You aren’t helping me! You are all evil people!” Even so, it’s worth it to me to do what I get to do.

We run lean and we run everywhere

One of the biggest clichés in the nonprofit sector is that we wear many hats. It is totally true, though. Why? We run lean. There is not room in the budget for superfluous staff or sometimes even essential staff, and overtime is a four letter word. My title says office manager, but sometimes I’m the receptionist, the janitor, the researcher, the human resources staff, and the accountant. We operate on the generosity of others and a few government funds but we’re  expected to take care of thousands of people on dozens of dollars. We do our best with what we have and, when I look at the bank account, I’m always amazed at how many people we help.

It is completely worth it

Remember that double bottom line? That’s the crossroads of my administrative job. Some days I’m the bad guy saying, “No, we can’t provide that child with counseling, we need to refer them elsewhere,” and then I turn around and get to be the good guy that hears, “Nowhere else has been able to help me. Thank you for actually caring.” I am driven by my sense of justice and love of community, and no other kind of job would nurture that this well.  
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