I love mission-driven jobs. In fact, I’m borderline addicted to them. My whole career has been in the nonprofit sector because I want to spend every ounce of my working life on missions I believe in. And yet, as a leader and a coach in the nonprofit sector, and someone who cares deeply about gender parity and race equity at work, I know that for lots of us — and especially women of color — our passion for the work we do sometimes makes us vulnerable to inequitable pay scales and jobs that we can’t set boundaries around — or walk away from.
Three quick examples from the past two weeks alone:
- Fired for pushing back. This week, I chatted with a brilliant Latinx professor fired from a state university for pushing back when her manager gave her a raise a few thousand below what he’d committed to her previously. No previous issues, well-published and smart, and within a few months, out the door for being a problematic woman of color. That same professor led me to a growing body of research that shows that Latinx professors make much less than their peers, even when they publish more (example): information that’s well-known in Latinx professorial circles. But my colleague and hundreds like her don’t leave the system because they are passionate about their research, about their students, and about breaking down walls for future generations of Latinx in academia.
- $15,000 less for the same work. I recently had dinner with an outstanding fundraiser that once helped to build a development shop at a small, well-funded foundation. She told me a story about leaving a previous role only to learn a white male peer was being paid $15,000 more than her for the same job. When she finally made the decision to leave, she doubled their salary for nearly the same portfolio of work at a more transparent, race-conscious org. The truth is she would have left sooner but her passion for the day-to-day work of development kept her there years longer than she should have been.
- Between a rock and a hard place. When hosting a workshop at a conference for young parents last weekend in Washington, DC, three participants shared about the challenges of maintaining any semblance of self-care working in the nonprofit sector, given the “always on” expectations of their work (and their managers). I’ve heard this story over and over again in our sector: early career women of color being tracked into direct service or internal administrative roles that require the most time, have the least support, and provide the least opportunity to say no. As these participants said, it’s often easier to just lose one more Saturday or continue to work late than to risk the reputation ding of not delivering or disappointing their boss.
So what’s the solve? How can we deeply care about the work we do everyday, and also feel empowered to set boundaries and advocate for what we need? How can we give ourselves room to walk away from an organization that does great work, but doesn’t do right by us?
- Get Off of Auto-Pilot: With very few exceptions, if you are a woman of color in the nonprofit sector, you will need to advocate for yourself to make the money and land the work you deserve. You can not be passive about your career; the system is pickled and produces bad results when left to its own devices. You must actively work to plan and advance your career.
- Break the Binary: In our sector, there is a myth of being either totally committed (read: a workaholic) or a clock-puncher that’s just here for the paycheck. That creates a false dichotomy about two things that should not be in tension. The purpose of work is both to contribute to the world and secure the resources you need to thrive. Both things can happen at once without detriment to the other. In fact, both are needed to reinforce the other. That means asking for a raise if you’re underpaid doesn’t mean you’re less committed; it means you are so committed that you are insistent on creating the conditions to commit to the org long-term. To state emphatically what I’ve reminded many women of color behind closed doors over the last few years: your organization’s success matters, but your success matters too. Advocating for yourself isn’t selfish, it’s normal and necessary if you feel an aspect of your job isn’t meeting your needs.
- Make Peace With Your Choices: Sometimes, we make choices to stay in a place where we are overworked, underpaid, or denied opportunity because the work itself is rewarding (or we enjoy our colleagues, need the stability, need the benefits, etc). Sometimes we choose not to have the raise conversation today because we want to ask for more money (or a tuition benefit, or more flexibility, etc) tomorrow. And sometimes, we just choose to leave without asking for anything because we’re tired of the microaggressions, the workplace doesn’t match our values, or we’re frankly burned out. I’m less concerned about the content of your choices on these matters, and more that you feel fully empowered to do what’s right for you without your inner martyr making you feel terrible for making a decision to leave an organization simply because they serve a cause you care about.
Clearly, passion at work makes a difference and we should all strive to do work we align to. The world needs as many smart people as it can get working to make our society more just. But too often in our sector, for women of color in particular, our passion can prevent us from self-advocacy, setting boundaries, and walking away when we know we should. If that’s the case for you, it’s my hope that you’ll make a self-authored choice about where you need to set some guardrails on your passion, to ensure the life you’re building is one you’ll be proud of — not just now, but for the foreseeable future.