Why You Shouldn’t Look for Meaning in Your Nonprofit Job

When I first entered the 9-to-5 working world, I went straight into nonprofits and stayed there for about 4 years. I spent this time looking to my work to provide a sense of meaning in my life. That's where I went wrong.
Nonprofits do a lot of good in this world! I'm in no way encouraging people not to support them or even not to work in the nonprofit/mission-driven business sector. What I do hope to offer is a bit more information on what it's like to align your sense of purpose with your nonprofit job and how to avoid some of my mistakes.

Nonprofits and Life Purpose

For four years, I maintained the mindset that I couldn't spend my 40 hours a week working anywhere other than a nonprofit or B Corp and only taking on freelance work from mission-driven companies and individuals. I relied heavily on the work I did to pay the bills to also provide a sense of meaning in my life. And you know what? It failed every time. No organization in the real world could ever live up to my perfectionism and high ideals.

All of this became clear in hindsight, but when I was living it and learning that lesson, it took me a number of other realizations to arrive at that conclusion. Let's talk through some of the epiphanies I had along the way to help me realize I could be happy and fulfilled without depending on a nonprofit job for a sense of purpose.

The Realities of Working at Nonprofits
Wearing All the Hats All the Time

By nature, most nonprofits are scrappy and often expect people to do multiple jobs, which is great if you want to explore. Working at 501(c)3s allowed me to try a lot of roles on for size and figure out what I wanted to do next in my career, which was invaluable as I was starting out! The downside, though, is how easily you can burn yourself by wearing too many hats—especially if you're still figuring out the right work-life balance. When you're caught up in the mission of the company, sometimes it's harder to see that you're working yourself into the ground or that you've outgrown your many roles in one.

The Truth Behind the Stereotype of Lower Pay

All companies are different and of course there may be exceptions, but generally speaking, nonprofit positions don't exactly have a reputation for being well-paid. As a way to keep their margins smaller and put more funds into the good work they're doing, many nonprofits depend on the fact that employees will be more motivated by a common mission than by the money. That's all fine and good... to an extent. But please realize that you're allowed to pursue a higher salary and to be paid what you're worth, even if that means leaving the nonprofit sector.

The Mission in Principle vs. in Practice

Nonprofits are driven by an underlying mission, which can often be what attracts potential employees in the first place. As with other companies, there may be times when the actions of the team contradict the organization's underlying mission and values. When this happens regularly at a nonprofit, it can be incredibly disheartening as you no longer feel aligned with your work. In these scenarios, sometimes the morals and values that lead to you begin working somewhere might also be what motivates you to leave.

Looking for Meaning in Your Day Job
Depending on a Job for Money AND Meaning

A lot of things can happen to your role at a company, even if it's your dream job. Businesses can go under or may need to lay people off. And as an employee, you could decide to leave for any number of reasons. At my first 9-to-5, I attached so much of my sense of self and meaning to my work that the thought of losing or leaving my job would usually throw me into a bit of a tailspin. It took me months to come to terms with the fact that, while I loved the company, my position there wasn't the right fit for me anymore and I needed to move on.

Work Outside Nonprofits Can Be Meaningful

After leaving my second nonprofit job, I landed a temporary contract at a design studio. In the few months that I was there, I became part of a team with a great dynamic and the cofounders made a point to help me progress on my career journey, offering guidance and mentorship. Strangely enough, the way this for-profit studio was run felt much more in alignment with my values than some of my nonprofit experience before.

Since then, I prioritize company culture and how employees are treated above an organization's mission in determining if I want to work somewhere. As a result, I've been much happier and more satisfied in my career! I deeply appreciate everything I've learned from my time at nonprofits and all that they do for the world, but I have zero regrets about no longer spending half my waking hours working at one and looking to that for my sense of purpose.

Finding Meaning Outside Your Day Job

Most importantly though, I've shifted to finding meaning outside of my day job. We are so much more than our professions and as someone who has changed careers, I'd urge you to not get too attached to that one aspect of your identity. Looking to hobbies and side projects for a sense of purpose and fulfillment not only makes you a better-rounded individual, but it also protects you from the possibility of losing "it all" should anything happen to your position at a particular company.

Conclusion

The four years I spent working at nonprofits were invaluable. They got me to where I am today and I'd still recommend that everyone try working at a small, mission-based business at least once. (These days, I actually spend 9am to 5pm at a social purpose startup myself.)

But in hindsight, I feel like my early career journey would have been so much more enjoyable if my sense of purpose wasn't so tangled up in my day job and if I knew how fulfilling for-profit work could be. In the end, I learned to do work I believe while also believing in on more than just the work that I do!