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

Dear Nonprofiteer,
I 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.



5 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, What was that you said about labor relations?”

  1. Gallagher Says:

    Could you change the green text to black? Sorry but its nearly impossible to read.

    It is easy to get sucked into feeling like you can’t leave in situations such as this- but it sounds as if its begging for a high turnover rate.

  2. mp Says:

    Sounds remarkably like my first nonprofit desk job – running a teen program.

    Problem is, when I did exactly what you suggested (told them that I wouldn’t be back for the next year’s program in March), a Board member called me and forced me to declare a day that would be my last day of work there.

    Now I understand that they were trying to get rid of me so they could have a Board member run the program and save the $23,000 of my salary, but it has made me very wary of any disclosure to an employer other than “I have a new opportunity and am giving my notice.”

    Just food for thought – especially with a small nonprofit that isn’t as good at managing their employees as one might hope.

  3. Anita Bernstein Says:

    I agree with mp. You mention the similarity of work in the profit- and non- arenas. If that’s right, then there’s no nonprofitty reason to say you’re quitting until you’re ready to quit. The letter-writer sounds like an employee to treasure, but that doesn’t mean her employer treasures her and won’t seize the pretext to tell her to clean out her desk … and get to blame her for being impulsive and selfish.

  4. Gene Finley Says:

    I’ve just learned a very hard lesson for a 46 year old. I left a job as CFO of a large nonprofit. I was literally worked to death. I demanded more help and never got it so I kept working overtime because I was responsible for a job well done.

    Of course, it’s the CEO’s fault for not giving me the help I need, right? No. After talking to a fantastic psychologist, I realized the real problem, I didn’t set proper boundaries on the front end. You may not be able to salvage this job but you can make sure your next one goes better.

    I love working in the nonprofit area and plan to stay there but next time I accept a job, I’m going to set the boundaries of reasonable expectations on the front end and I’m not crossing them, at least without proper understandings among all parties about how we get back to the right side of the boundaries.

    Another thing I learned about nonprofits is that people are different. They seem to react to critical issues making brush fires for me. I finally quit having brush fires by simply announcing that they don’t exist. What I began to have is changes in priority. I’m willing to work up to ten hours a day. If this new problem requires my attention, we must lower the priority on all other work on my desk.

    You can’t control your managers, you can only control yourself. You can’t set their boundaries, only your own. I paid dearly to learn this lesson. I hope you don’t do the same.

    Good luck.


  5. Nonprofiteer Says:

    mp and Anita may be right that advance notice of intention to quit is a mistake–I gave it when I left a nonprofit that I’d served for a long time, but it was an exceptionally good place to work and I felt I owed my very best efforts to my soon-to-be-ex-boss. But, as you both say, by hypothesis Anonymous is NOT at “an exceptionally good place to work,” and it may be unwise to tempt further dysfunction (e.g. a request to quit sooner) by mentioning plans to move on. That just makes it that much more essential that she write the Prolegomena to Any Future Doing of my Job: if the organization only has two weeks to get used to the idea of her absence, it should at least have a roadmap for the path she’d been on.

    As for the question who bears responsibility for making sure that nonprofit staff aren’t overworked, Gene is correct that the ultimate responsibility has to rest with the employee; no one can protect you if you don’t protect yourself. But I also maintain that the entire sector needs a consciousness-raising about what we ask of our employees, and bosses need to learn precisely that if they want to add a task they must either subtract another task or add a worker-equivalent (whether in the form of a person or in compensation for overtime). In other words: yes, nonprofit employees are responsible for remembering that they’re not slaves; but nonprofit employers also need to be cured of the notion that people who reject slavery are being lazy, uncommitted–and uncharitable.

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