Deciding when to leave a job can be a challenge: there are so many things that you need to take into consideration, including your finances, your resume, your professional development, and your overall happiness at work! Many of my peers and I have had to make decisions about whether or not we wanted to leave a job, and we all had a very difficult time deciding what we were going to do. Not only did we have to consider the average career concerns (how many months have I been at this job? Will it look bad on my resume if I leave??), but we also had to consider our strong emotional attachments that have developed from working in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits jobs are emotionally intense: people become attached to their clients and they are proud and emotionally invested in the work that they do to repair the world.
With all of these concerns in mind, I reviewed my own experiences and the experiences of my peers to parse out exactly why we left our various roles in the nonprofit sector, both paid and volunteer. Based on these experiences, I have compiled this short list of questions to ask yourself when you are considering moving on from a nonprofit job or volunteer opportunity.
1. Am I still gaining skills and experience in my current position?
One of the greatest things about nonprofit jobs and volunteer opportunities is that you have so many opportunities to gain experience in a variety of things! (This is in part because nonprofits are notoriously overworked and understaffed, but hey, let’s focus on the positive here!) In all of my volunteer and paid nonprofit roles, I have had amazing opportunities to explore new areas of interest, including fundraising, social media management, computer software, and group facilitation.
If you’ve found yourself at a place where you feel you are no longer learning new skills and mastering new experiences at your job, you should begin to reevaluate your role and what you’re doing. Perhaps there is a computer software that is relevant to your work that you could experiment with (Adobe Photoshop, ArcGIS, Constant Contact, etc.). Perhaps you could ask your supervisor if you could assist other employees or volunteers with projects to expand your horizons. Hopefully, your supervisor and coworkers will be supportive of your desire to learn new skills and grow professionally! If they are not, or if you just feel like you’ve stagnated at your current position, perhaps it is time for you to look into other employment opportunities where there is more room for growth and professional development.
2. Can I reasonably keep living at this pay grade?
Let’s be honest: jobs in the nonprofit world usually don’t pay very well. You very well might find yourself in the position where you love everything about your job from your clients to your supervisor to your day-to-day tasks, but you just can’t live on the wage you are earning. Depending on how long you’ve been at the job, you could always ask for a raise! A raise could be the financial boost you need to realistically continue working in your role. If, however, your finances are really looking bleak, there is nothing wrong with leaving your role or leaving the nonprofit field entirely for a better paying job. After all, you have to eat!
3. Am I being asked to do things that make me really uncomfortable or that I think may be unethical?
I’m amazed that I even have to say this, but I do because no one ever said it to me: if you are being asked to do something illegal, something that you think is unethical, or something that flat out makes you uncomfortable or unsafe, YOU ARE ALLOWED TO TAKE ACTION, INCLUDING QUITTING. I have heard so many stories of people in the nonprofit world being forced into uncomfortable situations while volunteering or working, and in many of those stories the person felt an enormous pressure to keep working without complaint to avoid disrupting the status quo at the organization because it did so much good in the community. No one wanted to be the one to report problematic behaviors to a supervisor or regulatory agency because no one wanted to be “blamed” for putting the organization in hot water. I have known many people (including myself!) who have stayed in unsafe/unethical/uncomfortable volunteer positions and jobs for much longer than they wanted to out of a sense of loyalty to the nonprofit, and the result was detrimental to their mental health and wellbeing.
Before you decide to leave a professional situation where you are asked to do something illegal/unethical/unsafe, you should first discuss the problem with your direct supervisor. In some cases, an unsafe situation can be resolved with additional training or resources. In other cases, discussing a issue that you’ve noticed could lead to a direct change in your organization’s policies! If, however, you discuss the problem with your supervisor and they are dismissive of your concerns or they say that nothing can be done to remedy the situation, then you need to try something else.
One next step involves reaching out to a regulatory agency or an emergency services department that you think could help you navigate the situation. This is especially important if you believe you are being asked to do something illegal or something that is putting people (including yourself) in danger. Even if you are not a mandated reporter for child or elder abuse, it is still a good idea to report when you think an organization is systemically endangering or abusing clients. You don’t want to be associated with an organization that ends up in the news for injuring or killing a client – it would not be good for your professional reputation or for your conscience! Please do not feel guilty about reporting nonprofit and social service organizations for illegal behavior, endangerment, or abuse. If you’re incorrect about the behavior and the organization is actually in good practice, the organization will be fine and you will be fine because you are reporting in good faith. If, however, you are correct and the organization does have systemic problems with illegal activity or abuse, you could be saving lives by reporting.
Finally, please do not feel guilty for leaving a position, paid or volunteer, where you feel uncomfortable or unsafe performing the duties assigned. If you reach out to a supervisor or a regulatory agency and nothing improves, you are allowed to quit. You do not owe anything to your employer, no matter how much you admire the work that they are doing in your community. Your job is just a job, and no job is worth putting your own physical or mental health at risk!
4. Is my mental health or personal life being negatively affected by my job?
There are several situations where a job could affect your mental health or personal life: you’re experiencing compassion fatigue, you don’t fit in with the company culture, you’re feeling overworked, you’re working in too high-stress of an environment… the list goes on. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or exceedingly stressed out by your job, consider what options you have for improving the situation. Could you try therapy? Yoga? Incorporating more self-care into your routine? Do you need to set up firmer boundaries with your clients or coworkers? Could you ask a supervisor for more support?
If you’ve gone through your options and your situation isn’t improving, it could be time to consider changing positions. Perhaps you need a role with less direct client contact, perhaps you need to switch the population that you work with, or perhaps you need to get out of the nonprofit industry altogether. Regardless of the solution, you need to do what’s best for you and your own mental health!
Claire is a recent Washington state transplant from the central coast of California who is passionate about service, community, and social justice. She spends most of her time sipping iced mochas at local cafes and listening to The Mountain Goats. More of her writings can be found on her blog, Until You Arrive.
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