Working in nonprofits, sometimes our relationship to the organization takes on a familial dynamic. It’s like our loudmouth cousin whose personal drama always finds a way to eclipse otherwise jovial holiday gatherings. It’s like our toddler who depends solely on us for care, which often comes at enormous cost to our own well-being. This post is about recognizing that unlike our families – whom we must love through thick and thin, despite their flaws, or simply tolerate a few times a year – we get to choose we where we work.
I know that working in nonprofits, emotions can be raw as we blur the lines between our public and private lives – sometimes willingly, sometimes not. I know from personal experience the joy that can come from being a part of something I believe in. I am not here to critique those of us who invest our innermost selves in our work. Today, I am talking about the times when our giant aerosol can of love is no longer shellacking our work with happiness. For whatever reason, the job has become untenable, and we recognize that it is time to move on. Maybe the decision is at the forefront of our thoughts, maybe it is just rolling around like an empty Diet Coke can in the back seat of a car. But it’s there, asking to be dealt with.
What stops us when we know we should leave? Most times, the answer is loyalty – to the organization, to coworkers, and especially to the clients. Far from criticizing this loyalty, I am writing today to acknowledge its existence and say, simply: Go. They’re going to be ok.
For the sake of discussion, let’s call this phenomenon “obligatory staying:” staying when we know we should leave; staying at the cost of our careers or our sanity. Stereotypically, obligatory staying is associated with high-ranking, founding executive directors who view themselves as the “face” of an organization and worry it will collapse like a Jenga tower when they extract themselves from the precarious structure. But I have found obligatory staying has shape not unlike Medicare: in addition to affecting those at the very top, lower-ranking front line employees also stick like sprinkles to the organizational donut with the cloying icing of loyalty. Mid-level folks, especially those with highly professionalized administrative jobs, pass through the middle much more easily and freely, perhaps due to marketability, experience, or emotional divestment.
I speak from experience as a former low-ranking, front liner. My first full-time job in a nonprofit was the perfect storm of 1) 22-year-old naiveté, 2) organizational nascence, and 3) general starry-eyed nonprofit romanticism. A recent college graduate, I strictly adhered to the the Great Job Lie Rule. Put simply, upon graduation everyone enters a social contract to promote the idea that they are Doing Well and So Pleased with Their Life Choices, despite the fact that post-graduation jobs are universally terrible. So, mentally, I was committed to this being the Greatest Job on Earth even though sometimes I went in the supply room, closed the door, and whispered loudly: “I quit!” So there was that.
Second, I was not working for just any nonprofit, naturally, but a rip-the-price-tag-off-the-office-chair-and-create-a-fax-cover-sheet-on-day-one startup. My “passion” for this organization gelled to an obsidian-like hardness that lasted the better part of 6 years. My psyche was more or less impenetrable to the exploitation and general pathos that I encountered on a daily basis. We just need to transition into a period of stability and growth, I told myself, as I talked about the organization with evangelical zeal that would make Billy Graham look like an agnostic.
It may have been the second tidal wave of staff turnover. It may have been watching my friends buy new couches or – eventually – new houses while I carefully squirreled away a pittance towards “the future,” which was a terrifying prospect as I barreled toward 30. It may have been starting a Master’s program at night and catching a glimpse of Reba McEntire-style “Life out There.” Suffice to say, the work I was doing, and the organization that I was doing it in, lost its shine. I stopped convincing those around me – and myself – that things were ok, that the job was the Best Ever. Yet, I stayed. It was like the 7th month in what really should have been a 6 month relationship. I knew I needed to break it off, but I didn’t know how.
What I felt was no longer passion but a deep-seated feeling of obligation that I can only liken to a sanguineous, familial tie. I felt needed. I held a bolus of information in my brain that I could neither digest nor regurgitate to someone else. I knew how to “care for” the organization in a way no one else could. I knew how to run the high-stakes enrollment for the popular summer camp so that it was fair and diplomatic. I knew that a City Councilwoman would call every year at the last minute and expect for her daughter to be admitted. I knew to comply, even if we had a waiting list. I knew that my coworker Brenda got bent out of shape every 3 months about Something Small that represented Something Big and only a long lunch over Pad Thai would bring her back to normal. Sure, individually, the minutiae I did every day held very little consequence for the big picture, but I was like a big wad of chewing gum that rolled around the organization picking up all the small pieces and holding them together. It wasn’t egotism; it was the catch-22 of knowing I was both essential and unimportant to the organization.
Eventually, I left. It was like the steamroller scene from Austin Powers. I think I gave 5 months’ notice, from the time my first acceptance letter to graduate school arrived. I made exhaustive chronological lists of instructions. I met with people and bored them to tears with the details of what I was handing off. And at the end of the day, the organization did change upon my departure. Things fell through the cracks, but eventually someone stuck a piece of tape on the end of a pencil and wiggled it around until they finally picked it up again. The organization was fine. I missed people. I emailed them. I met them for coffee. Some relationships fell by the wayside, others transitioned into friendships. I got maybe one or two frantic phone calls, but not many. After a while, I felt thankful for the time that I worked there, proud of the things I accomplished, and above all glad that the organization ran without me now.
There is nothing wrong with getting emotionally involved in our work. There is nothing wrong with strong feelings of loyalty toward our clients, coworkers, or the organization. But we should be careful where we file away these emotions in our brains. They should not go next to “Mom” and “Dad” and “Grandpa Earl.” They should go in “work” and “career” and “self-fulfillment.” Because unlike Mom and Dad and Grandpa Earl who we are obligated to see from time to time, we do choose which job we love. Sometimes the most loyal thing we can do is come up with an exit strategy and move on. Because we have a responsibility to be loyal to ourselves, too, and again, they’re going to be ok.