Loving your nonprofit job: The secret value of being mission-centered

photo credit: by jalalspages

The work is hard, the pay is bad, and no one else cares anyway.

That’s where I was last week. No big catastrophes, just a couple of grant rejection letters, volunteers bailing at the last minute, people incapable of reading their e-mail. Just enough “yuck” to kick-start the fantasies of the sort of job where you make lots of money and people do what you say because you can fire them if they don’t.

If you work for a non-profit you’ve been there. No matter how much you believe in the work, no matter how dedicated you are to the cause, some days you get bogged down in the crap parts of your job. Some days you are tired. Some days it seems pointless to continue fighting.

Assuming you don’t actually quit and become the next Donald Trump, what can you do?

Remind yourself of why you do it

When you are in “the bad place” it’s hard to remember that last week, you loved your job. You cashed a big check from a new donor, your volunteers worked tirelessly, and you received a letter from a college freshman thanking you for making her dream possible.  Yes, the work is hard.  No, it will never really be done.  But it is important, and by doing it, you are making a unique and essential contribution to the world.  During the inevitable dark times, you need a way to remind yourself of these brighter moments.  You need to reconnect yourself to the mission.*

Eventually you may be able to re-center yourself by force of will, but in the meantime, try using visual cues.

  • If you’ve got a good mission statement; tape a copy to your computer screen.
  • If your mission statement is management consultant gobbledygook, create a short hand version.  Jot 3-4 words that capture the essence of what you do on a scrap of paper and display it.
  • Keep copies of thank-you and “you are awesome” letters in a handy “pick me up” file.
  • Draw or clip pictures of the world you are working to create.
  • Collect desk-toys that reflect your mission in a playful way.
  • Find a touchstone that resonates with you.

For me, it’s a robot army.  Sure, the robots are two inches tall and made of cardboard, but they are big enough to remind me of the real robots being built across the city and the students who are being introduced to educational and career opportunities they may have never considered without them.

Plus, it’s hard to be grumpy when faced with cardboard robots.

Your turn

How do you keep yourself on track during the dark times?

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*One of the worst things to happen to the nonprofit community in the last few years is the take over of the word “mission” by for-profit management consultant types.  If you can no longer say the word without thinking of  “The Office”  try substituting the word purpose.

19 thoughts on “Loving your nonprofit job: The secret value of being mission-centered

  1. Maureen, many artists are involved in non-profits, sitting on boards, volunteering, or as clients. Many feel the way you do about their own practices – hard work, low pay, rejection. It’s a tough slog.

    Remembering why you *chose* your work is important, but it doesn’t always do the job. Your idea about visual cues is great.

    (Actually, it reminded me of a small collection of trucks and bulldozers I had at my last cubicle job. They helped dig me right out of there.)

    I also like the idea of shortening the mission statement to a mantra. It’s a good way to go–those short statements tend to have way more punch.

    • Thanks Stacey. My background is in performing arts administration so I tend to think of arts as a piece of the non-profit world. But of course for visual artists that is the exception, and really there are tons of actors, dancers and musicians who don’t work for non-profits either. It would probably be more accurate to say the technique works well for anyone who looks at their livelihood as a calling rather than a job-including artist and non-artist entrepreneurs.

  2. Greetings!

    A wonderful & relevant post, no matter what your mission-in-life-or-work may be.

    I used to keep a ‘good vibes’ file at the last ‘outside the home’ job I worked, and it helped me (in a good way) stay there far longer than I would have otherwise.

    Thank you so much for posting this! As I deal w/the frustrations of getting our biz up & out there, it’s good to be reminded of why I’m doing it in the first place.

    Bright Blessings & Good Fortune!
    -Birdy :>

  3. It sure can seem like a thankless job sometimes! That’s why I try to let the non-profits I support know how important their work is to me. Sometimes, it just takes a special note or a card that says “I appreciate you!”

    Having been on the receiving end of some of these feel-good moments, I can tell you they help – a LOT!

    • Thanks Sherice for the advice about sending notes as well as keeping them. Not only does it brighten the day of the person receiving it, but just the act of focusing on how you’ve been helped can improve a dark mood.

  4. I keep myself on track with chocolate! Which is a flippant way of saying, I give myself small indulgences that help me feel better, on the bad days.

    Seriously, I also have my quarterly and yearly goals on transparent “stickies” so that every time I open my laptop, they’re front-n-center. I imagine one could do that with a mission statement, too.

    • That’s a really good question Catherine. The mission of an organization and it’s values are not the same. If you are really passionate about the cause you may be able to deal with a slight values misalignment for awhile–but it will still wear you out. If your values are way out of alignment with the values of the organization the cause may not be enough.

  5. Non-profit or not, everyone can relate to feeling overworked and unappreciated. Keeping the “why” you do it front and center is a great perspective check. And keeping a sense of amusement handy — I love the cardboard robots! Good post.

    • Thanks Marsha. Laughter makes most things better. The added benefit of the robot army is I can also make up scenarios in my head where they bring people to justice for ruining my day. Maybe not the most self-actualized activity but very satisfying.

  6. I love the robot army, that is awesome!

    For me, it’s the thank you notes that get me through the day. Or if there isn’t a physical note, I write down quotes that I’ve heard people say about me or my work.

    I really like the idea of putting up pictures of the world I’m working to create. That sounds like it would be a great motivation tool (or possibly even a great creative activity to get a leadership team to use to evaluate mission and strategic goals).

    • Writing down the nice stuff people say about you is a great idea–it’s so easy to forget in the dark times how well regarded we really are. Plus, it’s an opportunity to use gel pens and pretty paper. As far as I’m concerned, any day involving gel pens is a good one. I also love the image of a leadership team creating mission based artwork. I’ll have to think on how to create a process that would facilitate that……….

  7. Maureen –

    Thanks for this post. It goes for nonprofit boards, too — they need that encouragement and sense of being part of a an important mission.

    Regarding the Kelly’s comment and your response, I have facilitated a few board-staff retreats where the opening activity was to create a visual image (using craft supplies, pictures, even building blocks) of the organization’s future. Then everybody gets to talk about their creation. It’s fun and energizing, and what comes out of it are tangible descriptions of mission and vision.


    • What a cool idea!! I’ve seen some similar stuff done–but usually just with markers and paper. I love the multi-media concept. For groups that are resistant to creating their own images, there are also products like visuals speak where participants choose images that capture the organization for them. If you had photos of some of those creations I’d love to share them at the bottom of this post. . . .

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