2 Sobering Life Lessons I Got From Working For A Non-Profit

She’s new to this country, this little girl with her twirly flower skirt. I’m here to take her to be enrolled in school — a school where she knows no one, knows no words of this new language in her new home. She puts on her shoes, the only pair she has. Flip-flops in January. And here I am, wearing my pair of boots, one pair among several.

I work with a refugee resettlement agency. These past couple of months have been tumultuous for us — we’ve witnessed the closing of another resettlement agency office in town, and had to say goodbye to 13 of our own staff during this refugee executive order back-and-forth.

Prior to accepting this position, I worked in the corporate world; I was used to company-sponsored lunches, catered holiday parties, and a paycheck that let me live comfortably with only one job. Moving into a non-profit role meant no longer living the “high life” of corporate world: I must finance my own lunches with co-workers, and track the number of copies I make so accounting will know which grant to put that print job to. I also had to pick up a second job on the weekends to support myself.

These last few months have been some of the most challenging, eye-opening, yet best months of my fledgling adult life. Working for a non-profit has taught me much about life and my place in this world, including two very important money lessons.

1. I am not poor.

Right now, I make less than $1,300 a month between both of my jobs (Americorps for the win!). My income is technically below the poverty line. But no, I am not poor. Because I go home to a beautiful apartment that I share with just one roommate. I am going to London for eight days. I have enough money to pay my bills and buy gas and groceries, and even grab drinks with my friends every once in awhile. I have a closet of clothes, and more than one pair of shoes to choose from. I have a car, and am able to be on my parent’s health insurance. I am not poor.

But I’ve been guilty of looking at my income and thinking to myself, I have no money. While this may be partially true — in my new job, I don’t have leftover money to put into savings like I did in my corporate job, and yes, money is tight — it’s not the whole truth. I have enough money to live comfortably, just not extravagantly. It’s still enough.

I am privileged. But on the opposite spectrum of realizing I have enough — more than enough, really — is the ease in which it is to feel shame for my privilege. Because here I am, with my multiple pairs of boots, and here this little girl is, wearing flip-flops in January to her first day of school. It’s easy to sink into this place of shame for living a comfortable life while others in your community and around the world go without the simplest human needs.

But shame spirals are never catalysts to action. Instead, awareness of my privilege should spur me to service, not cause me to berate myself for being born into an American middle-class family — something entirely out of my control. I can’t let shame over my privilege shut me down; instead, I should make conscious steps to be more generous with the abundance that life has offered me.

Which leads me into the next, most important lesson…

2. We need to be more intentional about donating to causes that are important to us.

Maybe that “we” in the sentence above is presumptuous — maybe you have mastered this lesson, and you set aside money each month to give to the organizations you care about, like the good socially-conscious citizen that you are. But this is a lesson I still struggle with, even as I witness firsthand the financial burden non-profits carry.

I am a hoarder. Not with material things per say, but with money. Especially now, when my income is more than 60% less than my previous job, my tendency is to want to hoard for my own enjoyment those few dollars that remain in my checking account after I pay my bills. My inclination to want to give away some of those dollars is, as the Jon Bellion song goes, at an all-time low.

However, agencies like my own rely on government grants for the bulk of funding, which in turn leaves the organization vulnerable to the shifting winds of political incompetence. This is where our duties as The Private Citizen come in: we need to be generous with our own money so that organizations can continue to offer much-needed services in times when funding like government grants are in limbo. The executive orders (though now on hold) on refugee resettlement meant that a fair amount of government funding was cut from our agency; because of this, staff cuts had to be made, and 13 co-workers lost their jobs. Maybe this is naively idealistic of me, but what if organizations didn’t have to rely on this sort of government funding because we as private citizens stepped up to donate to the causes that are important to us?

With this in mind, it’s important that I incorporate giving into my monthly budget, even if I want to make the excuse that I “don’t have enough to give right now.” Because even in my old job where I made a livable salary? I still hoarded, only giving away $25 a month — an embarrassingly-low amount, given how much I was putting into savings. A bigger paycheck doesn’t mean I will suddenly become a philanthropist; I must develop this money habit now, even if what I can offer isn’t much.

*****

My position with this agency is contracted through the end of August; after that, I’m not sure of the answer to my “what’s next?” question. But I know regardless of whether I decide to stay in non-profit work, or return to the corporate world, I’ll be taking these two incredibly important life and money lessons with me, and I hope to be a better, more generous person for it.

Ally Willis is a public relations graduate who buys way too many concert and plane tickets and then writes about it. She puts all things British on a pedestal. She runs a blog about post-grad life and also writes about music and travel on her own personal blog.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Monica

    This was an interesting read! As someone who did AmeriCorps for two years, I can definitely relate. What made you decide to leave the corporate world to do AmeriCorps?

    • Hey Monica! I had been unhappy in my previous role and had been interested in working with refugee services, so when I found this current role on a non-profit job board, I applied more for the job role and less for the fact that it was Americorps. In fact, prior to being offered the job, I knew very little about the Americorps program! It’s been quite the learning experience. 🙂

      – Ally

      • Monica

        I was in the same position! When I applied, I didn’t know anything about AmeriCorps, but I ended up staying two years because it’s great work experience and intro to the nonprofit world. I hope you’ve been having a good experience!

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