Not All About the Benjamins…Maybe
Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar:
You work at a non-profit social change organization that you care about deeply. When you got the job, you couldn’t believe you were actually getting paid to do the work you would do as a volunteer anyway. You felt honored to be hired amidst many other great applicants, and your community and family (chosen or otherwise) were so proud. It was somewhat of a dream come true.
Flash forward a few months, or a few years, and that passion and wholehearted dedication to the organization is starting to fade (or, it’s merely a distant memory). Yes, you love the values that the organization stands for, and the work they are doing in the world is so needed. But, you’re also getting really tired of feeling taken advantage of working long hours, with little or no promotion opportunities, and feeling like you’re compromising your own health and well-being for the sake of the movement.
And, you’re paying your rent and your student loans, but just barely. You’ve wanted to ask for a raise for a long time, but you know the organization doesn’t have any money, or at least not for an entry-level position, so what’s the point.
Ok. So, if part or all of this scenario sounds familiar, the first thing to know is that it’s not just you. I can’t even tell you how many similar versions of this story I have heard in the last few years through Rabble Up. This is the story that’s replicated in almost every sector of the progressive movement, no matter what issues you’re working on, or where in the country you’re doing that work. Believe me, I get it, I’ve been there.
The second thing to know, is that your feelings and struggles are valid and real. Just because you’re feeling burnt out, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad activist or any less dedicated to the cause. PLEASE hear me when I say that, I’ll even say it again: Just because you’re feeling burnt out, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad activist or any less dedicated to the cause.
And thirdly, there are ways to break the cycle of feeling frustrated or stuck.
1. Make it bigger than yourself. I know it may feel like it’s just your organization, or your boss that’s keeping you in the cycle, but it’s time to find the part of you that is actually angry at the structures. Love the work, hate the structure.
Over the last few decades, the progressive movement has developed in such a way that our organizations are simultaneously more professionalized and more powerful than ever, but also so under-resourced that very few leaders are paid what they deserve, and everyone is burnt out. The truth is, the majority of our work is still funded primarily by old white men with deep pockets, dictating how and when the money gets spent. Sure, your boss might actually be a huge pain in the ass, completely disorganized, and not really seeing you, but she’s probably hurting too.
Tapping into these structural issues and zooming out on the bigger picture won’t change your circumstances necessarily, but it might give you some respite to know that your situation has nothing to do with your own personal failings or lack of effort.
2. Should you stay or should you go? So, now that you know it’s not just you, you’re still left with the decision to stay at your current job, or start to look elsewhere. This is obviously an extremely personal decision, but here’s a framework that I offer to you, in case it’s helpful:
When there’s no prospect of more money (which is only part of the story, anyway), it’s hard to figure out whether to buckle down, pay your dues, and keep at it for another year. One suggestion, is to get really clear about the “currency” that your job is offering you. In this case, currency isn’t just the hard won dollars. It’s also the skills, relationships, networking opportunities, professional development and subtle self-growth opportunities that your job may or may not be offering you.
Some examples of non-monetary currency:
– Learning how to be a real community organizer and build authentic relationships.
– Learning how to do data-driven civic engagement.
– Learning how to balance a budget.
– Learning how to speak in public, or even just practicing how to speak up at a staff meeting.
– Attendance to events or conferences where you can meet others in your field and soak up some knowledge.
– A mentor that can help open doors, either now or later on.
– Co-workers that inspire you.
– Opportunities to learn about your natural skills and leadership strengths.
– Opportunities to learn about your natural challenges and leadership growth points (which we all have).
– Learning how to write a damn good fundraising pitch.
– Learning what to do, and what not to do, to be a good manager one day.
And the list goes on. Get clear about what currency your job is providing you– and be as specific as possible.
Then, if the currency of your job really isn’t flowing in any of these other ways, or monetarily, it might truly be time to move on and figure out how to leave on good terms (which will have to be another blog post for another day…). Especially if you have a heap of responsibilities that need cash flow right now, then honey, I hear you, and sometimes we just have to make the hard choices to make it work. No shame in that.
If you do decide to move on, take the time to get really clear about the full slate of currency you want and need from your next gig. If we’re really talking about breaking cycles here, then we have to talk about creating new patterns of putting your needs first.
It can be really hard to see outside the tunnel when you’re living in it day in and day out.
This way of thinking is intended to help you take a step back, and look at the big picture vision for your career, or at least, help you weigh all your options in the present. Claim your authority, and trust your gut. And if you’re still feeling a little lost, give me a call.