Seven signs you should seriously consider leaving your nonprofit job

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

The Great Resignation is real. Since late spring 2021, my LinkedIn feed has been filled with announcements from people leaving their jobs for greener pastures. I myself landed a new job in April and started in June.

There’s a myth that people working in nonprofits are happier because they’re “making a difference” and “doing something meaningful with their lives”. Yeah, no. Nonprofits — in my case, international development organizations — can be extremely toxic places to work.

Here are seven danger signs that I’ve seen over and over again in the nonprofit field, both from my own experiences and those of my friends and colleagues. If any of these apply, it may be time to dust off that CV and put out feelers for new opportunities.

1. You’re on an unstable contract and have no path towards greater job security.

I’ve heard this described as the “uberization” of white collar work. Increasingly, nonprofits and international organizations are relying on short-term consultant contracts to carry out core functions. Consultants on these types of contracts — often as short as three to six months — are paid less than regular staff, have no health benefits, are subject to self-employment taxes, and have no job security. All while having skill sets and job functions that are indistinguishable from regular staff.

For some people, this arrangement works well. Perhaps they’re a university professor who takes short-term assignments to provide expert counsel. Perhaps they’re a parent who appreciates a more flexible, part-time schedule that allows them to spend more time with their children. But for people who genuinely want to have a stable, full-time, long-term career with their organization, having no choice but to jump from one short-term contract to another causes significant stress and anxiety.

It can mean not being able to rent an apartment. It can mean not knowing if you’ll have a visa to stay in the country this time next month. It can mean not reporting a supervisor for a serious infraction because they control the fate of your contract. It can mean being afraid to get sick because you get paid by the day. It can mean suddenly owing tens of thousands in taxes when the host country changes its laws.

Often, their managers seem sympathetic to their plight. “We’re on a hiring freeze; you know I’d bring you on as staff if I could.” “We just don’t have the budget right now, but give me a year.” “I also started out as a consultant and they converted me, so you just have to hang on a little longer.”

Sure, you might be one of the lucky ones who get converted to staff. I’ve seen it happen. But you should never put your career on pause, waiting for a promise that may never materialize. If you can find a better opportunity with health insurance, take it.

2. Your boss is dysfunctional and has no incentive to change.

Your boss is the director of your department. They’re brilliant, forward-thinking, well-spoken, one of the most prominent faces of the organization.

They are also deeply dysfunctional. When you working here, one of the most common things you heard from colleagues was “That’s just the way XX is. You just have to roll with it.”

Maybe XX is one of those brilliant jerk types, someone who’s so good at their job that they’re given a free pass by senior management to be an asshole. But your boss doesn’t need to be abusive to be a bad manager.

Maybe they never give feedback and never attend your one-on-one meetings, despite your multiple requests and reminders. Maybe they don’t read emails — not until something is past overdue because of their own negligence, and then you’re the one who’s hustling at the eleventh hour to get it done. Maybe they’re so terribly disorganized that the whole program is in disarray, and you feel like a small town detective trying to piece fragmented emails and disjointed documents together.

Maybe they clearly favor your coworker, and you hear of them having frequent lunches and even hanging out on the weekends. It’s your coworker who gets to lead the big project and who gets to travel to Paris with your boss next month for that conference.

There is nothing you can do about your boss. The only person who can force them to change is their boss, and that’s clearly not happening. The only thing you can change is getting a new job and moving on.

3. You’re doing the job of three people, without the title and salary to match.

This is so common in the nonprofit field that it’s almost the norm. People are overqualified, overworked, and underpaid. In the international development space, requirements have become inflated to the point of being ridiculous. You’re expected to have a master’s degree, five to seven years of experience (including in developing economies), fluency in three languages, internships with prestigious organizations — all for a measly job title of Research Associate and a salary of 45k a year.

Then, when you’re hired, you realize the job is three or more full-time positions rolled up into one. At my last job, I was the only communications person on the team. I was solely responsible for media relations, social media, graphic design, writing and editing, and web content management. Is it any surprise that I burned out?

Many people I know, myself included, have asked for a raise and/or promotion at some point, when we realized that we were not being fairly recognized and compensated for our work. I don’t know anyone who has actually succeeded in their ask.

What managers don’t seem to realize is that when we make that ask, that is the last chance we’re giving the organization to make us whole and convince us to stay. And then, of course, they’re stunned when we give our notice. But what do you mean, you weren’t content to stay in this crappy situation forever?

4. Your organization claims to create impact through primarily awareness-raising and coalition-building.

The vast majority of the most pressing issues of our time — climate change, income inequality, human rights, women’s rights, etc — have already reached a tipping point when it comes to awareness. People are aware. Politicians are aware. Corporations are aware. Experts have spent decades researching the issue and publishing white papers on how we should address these issues.

At this point, it’s not about awareness. It’s about action. You and I can save a couple of plastic straws and sign some petitions, but it’s the people with the real power who are sitting on their hands. Instead of passing new regulations and transforming supply chains, they’re giving millions in funding to nonprofit initiatives with incredibly vague missions and objectives like “raising awareness” and “convening dialogue”. Ask them about their impact, and all they can tell you is how many consultation workshops they’ve hosted. That so many nonprofits follow this model is one of the world’s greatest scams.

5. Many of your coworkers are incessantly negative and cynical.

I’m the type of person who gets along magnificently with my teammates. We become close, we chat on Teams all day, we confide in each other our frustrations and plans to leave the organization. Usually I’m the first one to leave — and immediately, it’s as if we’re total strangers. The people who were in my chat every day, sending snarky GIFs and supportive messages, have suddenly vanished from my life.

That’s how I realized that I had been confusing work friendships for real friendships. The only thing we really had in common was that we hated this team and our boss, and once that was eliminated, there was nothing left. We had an unhealthy relationship borne out of bonding over toxicity, trauma and stress.

These types of friendships are flimsy. They also point to a bigger problem. Negativity is contagious, and when you get too close to people who radiate negativity, it’s easy to get absorbed and start seeing everything through a cynical lens. Pretty soon, you’ve lost trust in your manager, lost faith in your mission, and lost the drive to do good work that could actually strengthen your CV and get you out the door faster.

These days, if I have a serious problem with work, I talk to my therapist, friends who aren’t coworkers, and maybe my career coach if I’m working with one. I’m practicing putting up an invisible barrier for the protection of both my mental health and that of others.

6. There is little similarity between the leadership of your organization and the communities you serve.

Many nonprofit organizations are highly homogeneous. Even when they do have people of color on staff, they’re mostly concentrated at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy. The people at the top making decisions about programming and priorities rarely look like the people and communities they’re supposed to be supporting.

I once worked at an Indigenous rights advocacy organization that had around 40 full-time staff members. Not a single one of us was Indigenous. In fact, most of the staff was white. There were three Asians on staff, and two of us gave notice one day after another.

At my last job, we had country programmes in two African nations, but no one on staff who was African or even Black. At a team meeting, when I brought up my discomfort with the fact that we had a white American woman running an African country programme remotely — she had fled back to the US at the start of the pandemic and claimed it was too dangerous to go back — my boss, a white woman, shut me down immediately in front of the team. She was the most qualified. There was no one else in the entirely country who could have done her job.

When someone shows you that they’re more concerned about protecting their ego and perpetuating the stereotype of white saviorism than doing actual work, get out. Otherwise you’ll be Sisyphus, forever cursed to pushing that stone up the hill.

7. You are literally becoming physically ill as a result of your job.

When my coworker was being bullied by our boss, she couldn’t sleep at night. And when she could, she would wake up with her pajamas drenched in sweat. She lost hair and was physically in pain. Around this time, she developed a cancerous growth on her body. The bullying didn’t help with that. She’s now on sabbatical and living her best life.

Another friend who recently changed jobs told me that just before she left, she was so nervous every time she had to interact with her boss that her stomach hurt. The anxiety was literally manifesting in the form of physical symptoms. She’s now with a new team and feels much better.

A senior director at an old job was so distressed by the human rights situation that he was working on that he had a heart attack while jogging in his neighborhood and had to be hospitalized. After taking an extended leave of absence, he quit his job and has now gone freelance.

Need I say more here? If your job is making you ill, get out as soon as you can. Otherwise, you could end up paying for it with your life.

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