The nonprofit sector at a glimpse seems like a perfect world where people do good things for the community. However, I saw a different reality working within a nonprofit and on a project that attempts to understand the nonprofit sector in Southeast Michigan.
First, to be working at a nonprofit is like working at a startup. With limited funding and resources, you need to often roll up your sleeves and do everything within your reach. And such grey boundaries of roles naturally make the work unorganized and even hectic. To navigate through such entangled day-to-day tasks, you need patience and flexibility. There are also many risks and unexpected turns of events that disturb your work. For example, one of the interviewees we had talked about how his organization can be closed in the next year or so if they don’t get additional funding. Another interviewee had to cancel our meeting because her organization’s program disappeared on the very day of the interview (although the reason is still unclear to us).
Second, burnout is prevalent, especially among nonprofit leaders. This was a surprising (and honestly, discouraging) phenomenon to me because I always imagined nonprofit leaders to be esteemed and revered socially and financially. Every nonprofit organization requires funding from external sources like philanthropies, foundations, corporations, and individuals to function. Finding and maintaining relationships with big funders are just some of the many responsibilities that nonprofit leaders carry on their already heavy shoulders. Although they sacrifice so much of their time and energy for the organization, they are often under-compensated. Additionally, with so much passion and vision for the betterment of the community, the caring leaders can feel like their work is meaningless and trivial in creating real, structural changes which often take so much time (even generations). There are more factors contributing to the leaders’ daily stress—and they contribute to an eventual burnout.
Nonetheless, the nonprofit world is a meaningful community and family. Everyone I have met through work and interviews are so passionate about their work. They respect each other even if they come from different backgrounds, organizations, and regions. They are more than ready to help each other despite the fact that they may be competing for the same funders. I appreciate the warmth and energy I have received from working with Co.act and Michigan Community Resources (MCR). And I admire their collective strength to learn and grow together for the benefit of the community they serve.