Dear Nonprofiteer, What was that you said about labor relations?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

currently work as a special events manager for a small non-profit based
in Florida. I have been in this position for one year and my main duty
is coordinating a conference of our 300 members that takes place every
summer. There is no one else that works on the conference and the next
one is coming up in June. I make less than 23,000 a year with a college
degree, and needless to say this had been quite difficult as I try to
become an independent adult. At the end of this year I feel burned out
because of constantly having so much more than I am able to do on my
plate, and because of financial stress. For that reason, and because I
would like to start learning (which I am not doing as there is no
supervisor that works with conference planning) more about my field I
have been job hunting. My question is- because I have so many duties
and they are quite time sensitive being about 4 months away from the
conference, if I do find a new job what do I owe my current
organization? I feel trapped, as if the event will be a failure unless
I stay until it is over because they won’t find someone qualified to
run it that can get up to speed in time, but I really don’t want to
stay any longer. Am I a horrible employee?


Signed, Anonymous Non-Profit Worker

Dear Anonymous,

No–you’re a conscientious employee who nonetheless would like to learn more and earn more than your current job permits.  Wanting to get ahead is considered praiseworthy in every other aspect of our capitalist society, but it’s treated as disloyalty in the nonprofit sector–a cultural wrinkle our sector will have to iron out, because the rest of the economy isn’t going to change any time soon.

But you won’t be very appealing to a new employer, inside or outside of nonprofits–nor should you be–if you leave your current place of business in the lurch.  So let me suggest that you start right now to write down everything that’s involved in organizing the conference for members.  This will have two purposes: it’s a work product to show prospective employers what you’re capable of doing, and it’s a handbook to give your supervisor and successor to enable them to muddle through the conference, should your new opportunity arise before June (as you hope). 

If you’re already overworked (which I infer from the burnout you describe based on constantly having too much to do), my suggestion that you do something else may seem absurd.  But trust me: take 15 minutes first thing each morning and write down everything that needs doing for the conference in a particular month.  Start with June and work backwards.  You’ll be done in a couple of weeks, with two consequences: you’ll have an easier time doing what needs to be done for your job and you’ll have a clearer conscience about looking for something else.

Finally, go to your immediate supervisor–if not now, at least as soon as you get your first job interview–and tell him/her that you’re looking for a new job.  Show him/her the handbook and express your intention to finish it before you go, but also make clear that you intend to accept a new job as soon as you get one.  Be clear about the reasons–you want to become a better event planner and there’s no career path for you at the current agency; you need to earn enough money to pay your rent and student loans and your salary prospects at the agency are insufficient; you want to get satisfaction from your job and the current position leaves you in a constant state of frustration.  There’s no need to whine, but it would be a final service to your employer to have him/her understand why a bright college graduate with enough gumption to run a program single-handedly during her first year on the job will not be there to celebrate her second year on the job.

A word to the wise: before you go into that meeting with your supervisor, figure out if there’s a package of increased salary, enhanced training and additional support which would make you want to stay in the job.  Why?  Because your boss will probably offer you something to encourage you to stay.  Nonprofits count on conscientious employees to feel flattered by the offer, and to stay, whether or not what’s been offered actually solves the problems of their employment.  So don’t fall into the trap: if you’re so burned out that you’d sling hash to get out, just say very politely, "Thanks, but I think I need a new environment."  But if you’d stay for $30K and an assistant and having your tuition paid at two professional development seminars every year, don’t hesitate to mention it. 

One final thought: make sure before you see your supervisor that you know what you really want.  If you really want a new job, everything I’ve said is good advice.  But if you really want to keep your job but with a raise and some support and some continuing education, it’s better to ask for them directly than to have those demands come up in the form of a threat to quit.  Whether you stay or you go, you want it said of you that you behaved professionally and considered the agency’s needs as well as your own.  Just a little thinking ahead will secure that good report for you. 



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