I stumbled out of the graduation ceremony, into the bright sunlight, and blinked hard. I was now officially an adult. An unemployed adult.
After much hand-wringing and anxiety over what to do with the rest of my life, I brushed off my resume and started looking for work. I always knew I wasn’t interested in working in a corporate setting (thank my hippie parents for that one). I thought I’d work for a few years, and then go back to school and get my masters in something equally as useless as my History degree.
Finding work was a challenge. I didn’t know what skills I had beyond the ability to write a killer essay, and read political tracts in short order. But having spent some time volunteering, I knew that working in the non-profit sector was an option, and one I was interested in pursuing.
I eventually landed an admin role at a local social service agency. One that I was passionate enough about, but it definitely wasn’t my dream job. I worked there for years – slowly turning that role into the dream job I was looking for, and I learned a few things along the way about what it means to work for a charity.
1. There is so much room to grow, explore and improve
Working at a charity means all hands on deck – especially for small charities that don’t have enough resources. Everyone pitches in, from stuffing envelopes to thinking about strategy. Because of the very nature of this work, you get to learn and grow pretty quickly. Though I started in an admin role, I quickly realized that I was good at the communications side of things, and through a combination of on-the-job learning and formal training, it’s come to be what I specialize in. But that’s not to say I don’t still roll up my sleeves to help out with other work when I need to.
2. Charities are surprisingly concerned about work-life balance
Now this might not be true of all charities, but I found that social service agencies are perpetually worried that their staff will burn out. So work-life balance is top of mind, and so is supporting staff who are working with clients who are sharing traumatic stories.
3. Leaders are passionate, but not always strong
People who start charities are definitely passionate, caring, and knowledgeable about the cause they’re involved in. But this doesn’t automatically translate into having the skills to build and lead teams, or to develop strategies, like marketing or HR, that aren’t directly related to the cause. This gap is an indirect result of society’s focus on funding only direct service, but we need to make sure leaders are getting the training they need to be effective.
4. I am not surviving solely on boxed mac and cheese
Despite many warnings about low pay, I am not poor and have managed to achieve a pretty comfortable lifestyle. Yes, I definitely earn the least in my friend circle, and yes there are some sacrifices (like convincing myself that “living minimally” is a trend I want to partake in). But I also go on vacations, occasionally eat at fancy restaurants, and am putting enough away for retirement that I won’t have to subsist on cat food and saltines when I’m in my 80s.
5. People enjoy telling me how to do my job
One of the biggest shocks, even after more than a decade of working in communications and with lots of training under my belt, is that people love to tell me how to do my job. I welcome advice whenever it’s relevant, but it’s this “bizsplaining” phenomenon that really gets me. That is, assuming people who work in non-profits are not smart or skilled, while simultaneously providing advice that ignores the non-profit context, like our funding restrictions and very limited budgets. I could go on about this, but let’s just say I’ve become skilled at accepting this “advice” with grace, and shooting steam out of my ears when my office door is closed.
6. Beneficiaries and donors really do make your days better
When you walk into your office/cubicle, it’s sometimes easy to forget what you’re working toward. I’ve always loved working at a charity because the clients who benefit from our programs are right in front of me. It’s a kind of symbiotic relationship – the clients are growing because of our services, and all of our staff are learning every day from the clients. From the kid who finally figured out how to express his emotions using art therapy, to the counsellor who had a breakthrough with a youth who was in crisis. These are the moments that can really hit home. And I know it sounds a little cheesy, but it’s really nice to know that there are people out there who care enough about your cause that they’ll shell out money to help – for nothing in return but a simple thank you.
Tune in regularly to Charity Confidential to hear members of our sector anonymously sharing the stories that we usually just whisper about. Have a story to tell? We’d love to include your voice. And you don’t have to worry about your boss finding out – we encourage all contributors to blog anonymously and to disguise identifying details. We all have stories to share so we feel less alone. Share yours by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.