So You Want to Do Non-Profit Work!
For seven years, before I left non-profit work for part-timing and freelancing to build my career as a writer, I worked full-time at a handful of non-profits in several different fields. Here’s what I can tell you.
In the seven years after graduating college, I worked in progressive non-profits, international humanitarian aid, at a start-up pro-choice organization, and for a few months as a volunteer in Rwanda. I don’t know how to quantify this particular set of experiences, but an anonymous post — Why is it so hard to find a feminist job? — led me to believe I might have something useful to contribute to the conversation. Let’s call this kind of employment “working for good,” whether it’s in reproductive justice or animal rights, fighting fracking or the keystone pipeline, or pounding pavement trying to get progressives elected to office.
So you want to work for good!
The absolute first thing you need to do is decide where this priority fits into your life. How important is it to you to work for good? And, once you have decided that this is a priority, how important is it to you that you get paid to work for good? The most important thing I can say about any decision in life is this:
You need to order your priorities.
As Anonymous pointed out in the link above, the vast majority of for-good work is concentrated in metropolitan, coastal areas. If you want to work in policy, your options are DC, DC, and the occasional less hands-on job in NYC. If you want to work for one of the leading women’s-rights organizations, you’re looking at NYC, NYC, NYC, DC, and the occasional SF. If you want one of these jobs, you probably need to be ready, able, and willing to move. Probably at a moment’s notice, for very little money.
Why are all the “good jobs” concentrated on the coasts? Because that’s where the money is. Here’s an important thing to know: non-profit is just a fuzzy, friendly way of saying “tax shelter.” Some non-profits do really good work. Some non-profits do really crappy things. All non-profits spend an overwhelming amount of time fundraising. You won’t believe it’s real even when you’re part of it. Aside from that, it’s clustering. Many for-good jobs are in DC because the national office needs to be close to Congress. Many non-profit and feminist jobs are in NYC because you want to be where your colleagues are, where the UN is, and where you will have the most access to big events, TV stations, and — I mentioned money, right? — donors. It still isn’t a perfect system, because you’re always not somewhere. Executive Directors in NYC have to travel to DC frequently and vice versa, and everyone has to travel to LA.
I’ll move. How do I find one of these jobs? There are more job lists than you can possibly imagine. For DC jobs, for $5 a month (used to be free, sorry!) get on Tom Manatos’ job list. Check Congressional websites directly. Get on twitter and follow every org you love — they’ll often tweet job postings. Make a list of every place you want to work, figure out where on their website they post their jobs, and check that part of the website every few days (this is how I got my job at a women’s human rights organization in NYC). When someone mentions an org, go right to the website, and if you like it, add it to the list. AWID has a great feminist job listing you can sign up for. And guys — Idealist, Idealist, Idealist. I got one of my DC jobs from there. Contact your friends who do the work you want to do and tell them you’re looking, they will send you things. When you apply for a job, see if you know anyone who knows anyone. Lots of people want this work and not much of it pays, so knowing someone who knows someone might be the difference between your resume getting a cursory scan and being really carefully examined. Finding a job is work. It takes a long time, even for people with tons of experience and many contacts. The more flexible you are the easier it will be. And if you can’t or won’t be flexible, that’s totally cool. You can make other choices. It’s not, “I can’t find a job,” it’s “I have a loving partner and a dog and I get to keep them instead of moving to San Francisco to live in an apartment the size of a postage stamp and the relative cost per square foot of the Taj Mahal and that’s awesome.” Remember, these are your priorities. You have to own them.
Let’s say I can’t move but I really want to get paid to work for good — what then? While working for big orgs has a glamorous feeling to it, there are lots of tiny regional and local orgs that need your help. Oh, the pay sucks? Friends, the pay sucks everywhere. You can hone a particular skill set that allows you to do consulting work; most of these will be on the tech side. You only need one client to start building a base, and eventually found your own consulting company, which will give you lots of flexibility (very little security though. remember — priorities). Every single member of Congress with a shiny, marble-floored office on the Hill has a local congressional office where people are busting ass working for the constituency every day. Volunteer for the campaign of a state or local official you believe in and if you work hard and draw attention to yourself, you may land a job with them after they’re elected. If not, you did work you believed in and made connections. Find your local temp agencies that work with for-good companies — getting in as a temp may mean a full-time job when they have money to hire. Or, start your own tiny for-good organization. Those jobs you want, local or national? I’m not talking campaign talk when I say someone built that. Those jobs you want are at orgs that someone started when they found a cause they believed in and went and pounded the pavement and worked out of their living room and got friends to work for free and raised money and then a year or two later opened an office and then… and then… and then… Apply for grants, throw fundraisers. This is how it starts; there’s no reason you can’t be the one to start it.
Guys — you don’t have to get paid to work for good. Really. You can find a “day job” you really enjoy and work for good for free; this may lead to paying jobs. I want to be a writer. I work upwards of ten hours a week writing for myself, because it’s important to me; this aside from several part-time jobs, some of which involve writing, some of which do not. If I got paid minimum wage for the time I spent writing for free, it would make a big difference in my finances. But I don’t, and I don’t care. I want to be a part of this, and it is my privilege. It makes me happy and it puts fuel on the fire on the days I feel like I can’t take another step. It’s important to me, so I do it. I do not say that as someone with a lot of economic security; I say that as someone who has made conscious choices to have other things, rather than economic security. It doesn’t mean I will always do this, or that it will always even be an option. I have also made the conscious decision not to have children, because it would make it impossible for me to afford to do this work. Children would mean I couldn’t move so easily, be so flexible when I need work, or get through the weeks when something breaks and needs to be replaced and there aren’t going to be nearly enough groceries. This is my priority. It isn’t and can’t be everyone’s, but remember — own your priorities.
Does it strike you as unfair? Good, change it. Start your own organizations, do things differently for the people who come after you, and don’t berate them for having it easier than you did. Go off the grid and stop using currency. Start a commune. I’m not being facetious. These are real options. If we want the world to be different we have to change it. As it is, I’m making an ongoing series of decisions that I think best allow me to do what’s most important to me. “I want to work within the system as it exists and I want it to accommodate me” is not a solution, it’s a statement — it’s a wish. For some people that wish will come true, for some people it won’t. Remember, the system wasn’t built with you, or anyone in particular, in mind. You can accommodate it (I have done this), you can change it to accommodate you, or you can say fuck it and work outside of it (I’m doing this a lot more now than I would ever have thought).
What is it really like to work for good? Oh man, that’s the million-dollar question. Here’s the truth as I know it. People are basically people, wherever you go. Working for good doesn’t suddenly make you wholly secure, kind-hearted and giving. Work is basically work. Sometimes it’s great and inspiring; sometimes its drudgery. Sometimes you’re late because your cat is sick and you’re stressed and heartbroken and, oh, don’t forget, you are really really broke, and when you get to work, your boss informs you that your performance is slacking, and now you’re worried about losing your job on top of everything else. Sometimes you come in and your boss and coworkers are super supportive and tell you to take the day off and not to worry about a thing. At the same time, recognize that many for-good movements are in transitional stages: there is less money, and there is a creaky, difficult generational shift, and the political climate is bad. Understand what kind of situation you’ll be in and, again, prioritize. If you ask around and find out a place has a toxic work environment, decide if you need a job now, or if you can keep looking. Yes, orgs that fight for access to health care should provide their employees with health care; not all of them do. Note this hypocrisy and work to change it, or start your own org, and face these challenges from the top instead of the bottom.
If you’re just starting out in for-good work, you’re the future. You’re vital and necessary. Learn everything you can and be prepared to do things differently. Your time is coming. But first, it important to note:
if you get an entry-level, paid position at one of these orgs, and you have no experience, you are a liability.
I mean this with love and compassion, and I speak from personal experience: you are not very helpful. You need to be trained not just in what your organization does, but in how to work in an office setting, how to work at a non-profit, how to work with partners, how to work with the particular sensitivities of your org’s field, and more. You are getting much more from them for the first year you are employed than you are giving, and you are getting paid for it. If this is your first year working for good, you are not very useful yet. I was completely useless at my first job. My second job had a very different learning curve (fear is a great motivator!). But bear in mind, the training you’re getting is a privilege. Pass it on, be grateful, and know your worth. When you’re good at your job, when you have the ins and outs of the org specifically and the field generally down, ask for more. Ask for more training, ask for money, ask for a promotion and more responsibility, and if you don’t get it, leave. Know your worth. Know when it’s not much — and know when it’s quite a lot.
I started working for good while I was young, agile, and optimistic, and for that, I have always been extremely grateful. At twenty-two, I had no doubt what my priority was: get a job working for good. I had a wide search range; I looked for jobs at every LGBTQ, feminist, and progressive policy organization in the country. I would have moved anywhere, done anything. I left the messy relationship with the man I had been in love with for four years, knowing that leaving meant we would never make it work, and that the hours I was putting in to my first jobs (70–80 per week) and the money I was making (dear lord, none) meant that it would be extremely difficult to make a relationship a priority. In fact, in the three years I lived in DC, I had one disastrous, on-and-off relationship with a soldier who was deployed much, much more than he was home, and even that was a lot to handle. My priority was work. That was what I wanted, what I invested in.
When that city had nothing left to offer me, I left, knowing that leaving meant it would extremely difficult to keep working in policy. When I prioritized, I decided that, at that point, I wanted a change of scene more than I wanted to do precisely the work that I loved. I switched into Communications, which doesn’t come naturally to me, and compensated by working in fields that were more relevant to me than general progressive politics. Because I needed the money and believed in the cause, I took a job at a tiny pro-choice group with an deeply toxic environment for terrible pay and no health insurance, and I hung in there until they let me go (the turnover there is quite high!). When I wanted to move to NYC, I did the same thing I did when I applied straight out of college, but with a new set of parameters and boundaries, some of which were necessary, and some of which I felt I had earned. It was necessary that I move to NYC because I have friends and family here, and after five years of moving around, I felt it was time to commit to my own life for a few years. I decided that I would not make less than a certain amount of money (still low, but not ramen noodles every night low) and that I would have health insurance, because with five years of training and experience, and my MA in the field, I believed I deserved some basic things and that I would rather not work for good (!!!!!) than sacrifice them. And I did, indeed, find a wonderful job, that paid me enough, and provided health insurance, and allowed me to do very, very good work. But make no mistake — I had five years of experience in my field. I had my MA. And I applied to all but the very most entry-level assistant positions, I sent out more than fifty applications to jobs I was either very qualified for or over-qualified for, and I got one interview. One. It only takes one…
I’m making different choices now, to live in a different way. In seven total years I spent “working for good,” I lived in four cities, on two continents, and moved a total of eleven times (being really broke is hard, guys). I was without health insurance for a good deal of that time. I was often not treated well at work. I started out pretty useless (that’s the truth!), and by the end I was a good to very-good employee and good to excellent at my work; still, had a lot to learn, and I made plenty of mistakes. I earned the right to expect certain things, and I didn’t compromise on them. I did compromise on other things, and those things depended on my life and my priorities. The world did not change to accommodate me, and I had to change a great deal to get what I wanted. But, if this is a path you’re interested in pursuing, this is what I will tell you. You might have it much easier than I did. You might have it much, much harder. I made extremely conscious choices based on what I most desired and I absolutely do not regret a single one of those choices. My experiences were amazing and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I attribute that mostly to the fact that I knew exactly how much was in my control and power and how much simply wasn’t, and I prioritized within that framework.
I don’t think you’ll regret “giving things up” if all you see instead is what you’ve gained.