In pursuit of nonprofit happyness
Ten years. Five nonprofits. Nine supervisors. Hundreds of thousands of dollars raised. And on October 19, 2018 I decided to quit my full-time nonprofit job.
I started my fundraising career excited, curious, committed, and with the sense that the nonprofit industry would bring fulfillment to my life. I was so naive.
Seven weeks into my last nonprofit job, it was time to walk away. I was done with the expectations of sacrificing my life and identity outside of work for the organization. I couldn’t handle the slimy practices of chasing money. I didn’t appreciate seeing my coworkers be humiliated publicly, and I didn’t appreciate being humiliated privately. I couldn’t handle the hostility and bias anymore. On the Friday of my seventh week I decided that I valued my health — physical, mental, and emotional, more than the paycheck I was receiving. I could no longer: show up to work fearing my supervisor, hear that I was incompetent and underwhelmed my supervisor, and have my job threatened regularly.
So without another job lined up, I walked out with my head held high. For about five hours I panicked, kicked myself for making an impulsive decision, worried about living off of my savings, and what I was going to do for healthcare. But after the best sleep I’d had in seven weeks, I woke up feeling happy.
Since I decided to quit, I’ve been healing. Which means sleeping a lot, watching Netflix, eating well, staying in my jammies all day, and getting ready to start my part-time job, so I can pursue side-projects that I’ve put off for years. Eventually, I want to be my own supervisor to prevent any more emotional abuse or traumatic work experiences.
The burnout has been real. In previous roles, my burnout usually started at the three year mark. The last two organizations I worked at, the burnout happened a lot faster. I’m not sure if it was because I was in Director roles or because of the harassment and abuse or a combination of both.
Unfortunately, many of the organizations I worked at were run by people not equipped to be leaders. In my experience, poor leadership permeated in every corner of the office and inherently affected everyone, whether they knew it or not. It was a lot more challenging to resolve the lack of leadership, because there weren’t any checks or balances in place. Some of my previous Executive Directors/CEOs couldn’t handle constructive feedback. Some of the Boards didn’t want to hold Executive Directors/CEOs accountable because it made them uncomfortable. Staff tried to organize and speak in unity, but it would unfortunately backfire and make working at the organizations more hostile.
As I work on restoring my faith in the nonprofit sector, I’ve been thinking about what I’d say or questions I’d ask if I felt safe, brave, and comfortable to truly speak my mind to those in positions of power, to those who support the work, and to those who experience trauma at their nonprofit.
What I’d like to say to some of my previous Executive Directors/CEOs:
- Are you stepping into the role for fame or because you’re committed to the work and its values? If you’re doing it for the fame, please consider a different career choice because it will consume you and you’ll forget about the values and purpose of the organization. Fame will eventually dictate all your decision-making abilities (which is not good).
- What are the values you want to bring to your role? Fairness? Vulnerability? Humility? Honesty? Transparency? Respect? If you’re not clear on what values you want to bring to your leadership, then perhaps it’s time to take a step back, reflect, and define your values.
- Are you publicly preaching your organization prioritizes social justice, equity, and inclusion because they’re trending buzzwords and looks attractive to funders, yet staff strongly disagree? If yes, please stop and reach out to the brilliant Jo Ann Prompongsatorn Farrant, Deputy Director of Organizational Development at TransForm (firstname.lastname@example.org), who can show you how to internalize trust, respect, and social justice, equity, and inclusion values so everyone wins (including you).
- How are you going to resolve conflict? What are you going to do when someone you hired doesn’t add to the culture, but actually causes harm? What are you going to do when a funder/high-net donor perpetuates harm to the communities you’re serving? If you’re not comfortable with conflict, then walk away from being a leader very fast! Selling our souls for money is an archaic notion…it’s okay to say no to big money (I know I have and in my experience it turned out just fine).
- As a founder, how’re are you going to acknowledge your Founder’s Syndrome and deal with it in a way that builds leaders, not breaks them down? As a founder, it doesn’t mean you have to stay at the organization for the rest of your life…you can walk away in five years and do something else. If assistants, coordinators, managers, and directors are replaceable, then so are you.
- Are you open to learning and growing, personally and professionally. If not, then don’t be a leader…please.
- Read: White Supremacy Culture (read regardless of race); “White Fragility;” “A Way Out;” “Employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers,”and reviews on SVCF (all of them, not just the first page) and reflect on your own behavior as a leader. How does your team describe you — Marionette, King Kong, Superman, Taskmaster, or a combination of all? What kind of leader do you want to be remembered as? What kind of relationships do you want to build with people? If you want to be a dictator and control every aspect of everyone’s jobs, then you should be working alone, not with people.
What I’d like to say to some of the previous Boards I’ve had to work with:
- If you’re not up to the task of holding the Executive Director/CEO accountable, then don’t join the Board. This means ensuring the Executive Director/CEO has an annual performance evaluation highlighting what they’re doing well AND a clear course of action for the areas they need to improve upon.
- Please build relationships with staff! The Executive Director/CEO may be the “face” or “visionary” of the organization, but staff are the people who are actually doing the work, contributing ideas to grow the organization, and are experts in the work. Often, staff are the ones who are giving the Executive Director/CEO updates on the work. Not building relationships with staff members is an outdated concept.
- The Executive Director/CEO may be the “face” or “visionary,” but that doesn’t mean they’re the only person who can lead the work. Yes, they may have founded the organization, but like with any human, passion and ideas run out. Everyone is replaceable and the world will not come to a end if the Executive Director/CEO changes.
- If you’re personal friends with the Executive Director/CEO, don’t join the Board. You may think you can be unbiased and maintain confidentiality, but when you receive confidential or concerning information about your friend, who are you going to look out for — your friend or the organization?
What I’d like to say to previous donors I’ve cultivated:
- Don’t give to organizations just based on positive and exciting news articles. Please go the extra mile and see who’s in leadership, does leadership understand community needs, are all staff representative of the community, how does the organization share community stories (e.g. is the organization telling stories from their perspective or are community members’ voices represented in their own stories), and what are the reviews on Glassdoor? After this year, I now have a policy if organizations treat their employees poorly (e.g. sexual harassment, emotional abuse, or lying about impact), then I’m not donating to them. If organizations can’t treat their employees well, then that affects the quality of work and impact. It leads to high turnover rates, not actually being able to achieve the mission/impact in the community in a way that’s powerful, fair, genuine, honest, and creates a bad reputation amongst alum, who often represent the very community the organization is supposed to be serving.
- Of all the nonprofits I know of (based in the Bay Area), rarely have I come across an organization that is the only organization doing specific work in the community. Yes, there are minor differences here and there, but not enough to be revolutionary. So share your gift accordingly (and perhaps give more to organizations founded by people of color).
- If you read negative reviews on Glassdoor or hear rumblings from insiders, email the Development staff that you support the work they do in the community, but don’t feel comfortable donating to an organization whose leaders don’t respect their employees…if you’re feeling brave, then cc your email to the Executive Director/CEO too. I know this is taboo, but at some point enough is enough. Everyone has to play a role in holding leadership accountable.
What I’d like to say to Funders (Corporate/Private Foundation):
- If you’re a corporate funder, please don’t ask organizations to turn a Letter of Intent or a grant proposal around in 24 to 72 hours. Many Executive Directors/CEOs don’t know how to say no to funders and this unfortunately creates an unreal and unfair expectation for staff. In my experience submitting a funding request requires the participation of 3–4 staff members and we already have plenty of time-sensitive priorities on our plates. Please be more sensitive to the workloads of staff.
- Build relationships with the program staff and request to meet program staff without the Executive Director/CEO — this will give you an honest look into the work and how the grant money is being spent. This also takes power away from Executive Director/CEO’s perception that they’re the only person who has the ability or clout to maintain relationships with funders.
- Even though your main purpose is to fund the work, read reviews on Glassdoor and ask the Executive Director/CEO about any negative reviews. You too can hold leadership accountable.
I feel we all have a responsibility to our communities and am grateful that there are so many organizations doing incredible work. Nonprofits and advocacy organizations are critical to the success of our communities. Without them, so many wonderful resources wouldn’t exist, like national parks, services for communities or people experiencing challenges, or animal rescue centers. But because organizations are doing “great” work in the community, it doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to the internal politics. If I can’t tolerate the leadership of the Trumps or Kavanaughs of the political world, then why am I tolerating bad leadership in nonprofits?
For staffers — you have rights too! I’ve said this many times to the people I have supervised and will say it again publicly:
- Don’t let leadership take advantage of your passion/good heart/dedication. If you’re going home sad/frustrated/defeated on a regular basis, it is absolutely fine to walk away from the organization. There is no shortage of jobs in the nonprofit sector (at least in the Bay Area) and you deserve to work in a place where you are respected.
- If you experience sexual harassment or discrimination, start documenting, speak with HR (if you’re lucky to have a trusted HR department), AND please report it to the EEOC! You can do it online now (at least in California). If we as staff don’t hold leadership accountable, then we will continue to reward bad behavior and put future employees at risk for triggering/traumatizing situations. Let’s break the cycle of bad leadership together! If you’re feeling nervous, please reach out to me, I will hold your hand as you submit the complaint.
- If your organization is mis-using charity funds or doing something really illegal, check out your State Attorney’s General’s website (link is for California) on how to file a complaint (Thanks Sal for walking me through this process!).
- Don’t be afraid to leave a review on Glassdoor (if it’s unsafe to do it as a current employee, it’s fine to wait till you’re a former employee). Before I even apply for a job, I read the reviews on Glassdoor…if the reviews are super critical of leadership, I won’t even bother applying and often times will tell the recruiter that due to poor leadership reviews on Glassdoor, I will not be applying for the position. Some nonprofit professionals will say that funders read these reviews and it harms funding opportunities — I say, in my experience funders continue to fund the work, regardless of how poorly leadership treats staff. If the organization has a bad leadership reputation on Glassdoor, it’s not your responsibility, as a staff member, to hide it...it’s the responsibility of the Board to address and fix it.
Together let’s break the cycles of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, not perpetuate it by protecting people who are not equipped to be leaders. Let’s truly be invested in providing resources to our communities so our community members can thrive in a way that feels positive, genuine, and powerful.
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