Someone asked me that question recently, and I was reminded of a funny (and somewhat sad) description used by a colleague years ago. "(This place) is like a bad marriage. I try to leave and I just keep coming back for more."
This sentiment was shared with me towards the start of my career, and it has rung true over the years in so many ways. My "nonprofit marriage" really hasn't been a bad one, but it's certainly had its ups and downs. What marriage is perfect?
Nobody told me when I fell into the nonprofit sector that I would take my work home with me, literally and emotionally, or that I would always work longer hours in less than comfortable environments for less pay. Nobody told me about the public aspects of my work that would mandate lipstick before a trip to the grocery store, usually because I will almost certainly run into a volunteer or donor or even a client. Nobody told me how awkward it would be when I shared my job title at parties and got the inevitable, "Oh, that's so sweet of you to volunteer! So what do you do for money?" (The word "volunteer" in my job title has led to this situation more times than I can count.) Nobody told me that not all organizations have the best interests of their clients in mind or that incompetent leadership can really drag your organization down even if the mission is theoretically great.
There's a lot "they" didn't tell me.
"They" also didn't tell me how amazing I would feel when I knew that my work directly or indirectly put a smile on a client's face, be it a homeless child or a man getting a new job. I had not idea how many bigwigs I'd rub elbows with, CEO's and VP's from big name companies I wouldn't ever run into otherwise. It wasn't until a few years into my volunteer engagement work that I realized my matchmaking abilities were so much better suited to helping people find awesome volunteer opportunities than they were to fixing up my friends on dates. Never did I realize I would get the chance to really beg a charitable Charles Barkley to wear a Santa suit for homeless kids (he declined, but a party with a different Santa and $17,000 donation resulted anyway).
What I've found over the years is that how we come to work in the nonprofit sector doesn't really matter. The ups and downs are inevitable, but also inevitable are the rewards we feel in our hearts for the work we are dedicated to performing. This is a calling, and I'm so glad I accepted that "proposal" to "marry" into a nonprofit sector career.
How about you? What makes your own nonprofit marriage worthwhile?