Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Feminist's Guide to Working in the Nonprofit Sector

Why hello, June!

I am here to get this month rolling! First here are a couple of fun bits of info:

1) It's Pride Month!
2) Sorry, Indiana. Your law sucks!
3) I've decided to start a list of what I'm calling "A Feminist's Guide to Working in the Nonprofit Sector" from my experience of studying and working in nonprofits. Truth be told, many of the observations are probably applicable to everyone, but since this is a feminist blog and I view the world through a feminist lens, I'm calling it a feminist's guide. Deal. Here's what I have so far:

  • Get use to wage depression: I mean, come on. They're called "nonprofits" for crying out loud. You don't go into them to make bank. However, as a feminist in the nonprofit sector, I am also able to realize that my field has low wages for a multitude of reasons, many of them including sexism. In other words, when a career is associated with feminine traits (like helping others), it is compensated much lower than other fields. There's the prototypical example of teachers. Nonprofit workers are the same. So while I can sit back and objectively say that my hard work is as valuable to our society as, say, an electrician, I'm going to have to suffer crap pay. And there's not a whole lot to do about it. Nonprofits are funded by the generosity of supporters, be they corporations, foundations, individuals, or governments. Often, funding is uncertain year to year, so you don't get the chance to ask for many raises. Any training you've had in negotiation is relatively wasted. It's just not possible when most nonprofits are simply concerned with staying afloat. Which brings me to my second point...

  • You'll probably feel like a suck up: Your very job depends on other people opening their wallets. And unlike the for profit sector, the item you offer them in exchange is very intangible. So you find yourself apologizing for things that aren't your mistake and continuously thanking people. Continuously. It gets exhausting, but that's one of the rules of the game. There's no room for cut throatedness in this sector. So get used to be very, very gracious. Practice saying "thank you" a hundred times a day. In every email. In every interaction. Thank you. Many thanks. Much appreciation. With gratitude. Thanks a million.

  • You will make an impact, but you very rarely will see it directly: This can be very difficult for those of us who are results oriented. When you work in nonprofits aimed at the empowerment of women and girls (like I do) you can't expect to see a young woman change her entire viewpoint from participating in one workshop or one summer camp. It takes a shift in your expectations; one which helps you understand that you are merely planting the seeds of change that will hopefully take root as the years pass.

  • Your hard work will be belittled: This goes hand in hand with the pay thing. Despite the fact that nonprofits are everywhere around us, they are vastly misunderstood. The organizations I have worked for seek to give girls very practical skills and/or impact their world view. They have the goals of producing socially conscious, informed, confident women. However when I'm talking to your layperson, I often hear "Oh, so do you all offer dance classes?" or "So you probably do a lot of crafts then." Now, I've got nothing against dance or crafts. They're both great. But when I'm neck deep in creating a curriculum designed to help girls understand how to get help for a friend who's in an abusive relationship, I can't help but roll my eyes at these questions. People seem to hear "working with girls" as "doing really stereotypically girly things." Which, of course, is exactly the opposite of what I do. Which leads seamlessly to...

  • Either figure out a short hand for what it is exactly that you do at your particular nonprofit, or just get used to people misunderstanding it: Had I prepared an elevator speech going into my jobs, I could have saved a lot of annoyance.

  • You will discuss everything. To death. Twice. And then again: One of the benefits of the nonprofit sector is that there are a lot more women in director/executive positions. The sector allows women to advance and grow professionally, so there are tons of opportunities for female leaders. Also, the nonprofits I have been a part of are a lot more flat and less hierarchical. They rely upon group input. I feel this also leads to a lot of discussion. Like a lot. Now, far be it from me to rely on stereotypes...I don't think that women are annoying talk-a-lots. I realize that not ALL women are naturally more discussion oriented. Regardless, discussions tend to be much longer and much more detailed than I've encountered in the other settings. This is both good and bad. On one side, you feel heard. You get a chance to share your thoughts and your supervisor isn't making unilateral decisions to the detriment of the organization. On the other hand, it can take a REALLY long time to come to any conclusions and oftentimes things feel unproductive for those of us who are concrete sequentials. Just prepare for that.

  • Surround yourself with people who motivate you to keep going: Every setting has a negative Nancy, and the nonprofit sector is no different. However, I've had the good fortune to find coworkers who truly care about me and the mission, and who keep me grounded and excited. I hope that the nonprofit sector continues to have so many women who fit this description, because I've found them to be the heart and soul of each organization, without whom there would be failure. Bond with the people who can be this support to you. You need each other, because the job's not going to provide you with incentives like high pay or low stress. Besides, there's something really beautiful about women working together for a shared purpose.

  • Ask for help: This is a lesson that flies in the face of what we, the modern woman, are told. We're supposed to be smart, strong, confident, and capable. However, the truth is that we all find ourselves stepping in shit every now and then. Good nonprofits have many of the qualities I've already described: they allow women to advance (so you should be able to find helpful mentors) and they have a support system. Use these things to your benefit and when you need help, seek it out.

  • Take time to recognize the victories: Like I said, it can be hard to go into work at a nonprofit and think, "I accomplished THIS today and I feel great." It's not like Dunder Mifflin where Dwight can say, "I sold 1,000 reams of paper!" Because things are much more intangible, YOU have to make the choice to pause and recognize what you've accomplished. No one is going to do this for you. You've got to allow yourself the time to reflect and brag a little (at least to the people who don't mind you doing so, like partners and best friends, for example.) It's really, really important to do this because otherwise the overworked and underpaid nature of it will eat you alive. You've got to remember why it's worth it.

So now that I've laid that all out there, I can come back and remember it because these pieces of advice and things to remember are something I need on a regular basis. And it begs the question, to those of you who have also worked (interned, or studied) in this sector, what would YOU add?

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