Real Talk: Realities of working for charities
If you’re feeling stuck in a corporate job and looking for more meaningful work in the charities sector, here are seven things you should know before taking the plunge…
#1. There’s never any money.
You’ll feel like you’re always asking for money or reporting on where the few dollars you had went. If you’ve come from the corporate sector this will be a shock – say goodbye to Friday drinks on the employer’s ticket, and hello to potluck dinners. Want lovely stationery? You’ll be buying it yourself. Need to get to a meeting? Make sure you leave enough time to walk or get the bus. Sometimes you’ll even find yourself writing funding applications for your own job, which can be very humbling indeed.
#2. There’s a lot of talking.
Unless you’re working for an especially nimble NGO, you’ll find yourself sitting in a lot of meetings, talking about stuff for a long time before anything gets done.
There is a culture of consultation and inclusiveness that when you first get there is a breath of fresh air, but after a few months can feel very trying, especially if you feel a sense of urgency about the issues your organisation is trying to address.
#3. Sometimes you’re not making a difference.
All NGOs, charities, social enterprises set out with good intentions and work very hard to achieve what they can to make the world a better place. But sometimes for reasons outside of their control, or because of dysfunction within the organisation, or because of poor leadership, they’re not getting there. If they’re not doing what they say on the box and you’ve got no way to influence that, don’t be shy about cutting your losses and moving on if you’re not feeling motivated.
#4. You might get cynical.
We all start out with a fighting spirit. But sometimes no matter how hard you and your colleagues are working, it feels like you’re never making a dent in the issue.
It’s hard to maintain optimism in the face of constant challenge and shifting goalposts, so if you’re feeling very negative about it, take some time out and start adding in some stuff that energises you and gives you back that hope.
#5. You’ll often be pushed out of your comfort zone.
In part because it’s a chronically under-resourced sector, you’ll find yourself doing all sorts of tasks you are not qualified to do but just have to do because it just has to get done. It’s fantastic learning and you’ll learn more in a year in an NGO than three in a government department. But know where your boundaries are and when your muddling away is actually costing more than paying someone to do it.
#6. They might be making it up as they go.
NGOs often start organically – starting as a couple of people in a living room solving the problems of the world and before they know it they’re managing 10 people and asking for funding in the 100s of 1000s. They might have been so focused on impact that they haven’t had time to put in place any policies or processes that ensures a functioning and happy workplace. When an organisation gets to a certain stage there is an argument for consolidating what you’ve got and focusing on the boring stuff so it can grow well. If that’s the case, don’t be scared to spend time on getting stuff sorted before rushing headlong into the important work and make use of the free support that might available outside the organisation.
#7. There’s a place for everyone.
As mentioned, the not-for-profit sector has an inclusive culture and there’s a place for everyone to help, but if you’re going to last you need to be in the right role. Take some time to volunteer in the sector to help you figure out which skills you want to use within the organisation and what you’re best suited to. For example, working for an organisation that supports families in financial poverty, it might seem the most pressing need is advocating for them to get access to the services they need – but you might be better suited to maintaining the database that captures those needs than standing side by side with them.
But, it’s not all doom and gloom. In next week’s blog I’ll reflect on the good/great bits too… Until then!
Tessa Johnstone is a recovering cynic, fairweather cyclist, mum of one, and works in media and communications. She took the long way there, working and volunteering for a number of not-for-profits in New Zealand and overseas before she got here.