3 valuable lessons I learned working at a non-profit


Very early on in my career, I worked for four years at a human services non-profit before moving on to the for-profit world. Looking back, I realize I learned three very valuable lessons that have helped me grow both as a professional and as a person.

The importance of saying “no”

Before I started working in the non-profit field, many people warned me about burn-out. Some scoffed and told me that I would last two years at most. Others shared their own experiences of having multiple mental breakdowns from working in the helping field. Someone even told me she had three root canals due to the stress (yikes!).

Despite hearing these somewhat traumatizing and troubling stories, I didn’t let these warnings deter me, and I decided I still wanted to work in the non-profit field anyway. However, about two years in, I started to feel the effects of burn-out. My problem was that I couldn’t say “no” without feeling an immense sense of guilt. I’d pile on more work than was good for me for two reasons: 1) I thought I could handle it; and 2) I genuinely wanted to do the work because I liked my job. I hadn’t realized how emotionally and physically draining the work could sometimes be until I found myself coming into the office looking like a zombie.

One of the most important lessons I learned was how to say “no” and not feel guilty about it. I learned how to let go of the feeling of always having to do everything. Instead, I learned how to be okay with sharing the workload and allowing it to be spread out among my teammates. By saying “no” more often, I became a better collaborator and a better delgator, our team became stronger and more efficient, and I learned how to be more assertive.

Relationships with your coworkers matter

The second lesson I learned is the importance of having strong relationships with your coworkers. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 63% of employees are “not engaged” in their jobs, meaning they essentially sleepwalk through their days and put very little energy into their work. In addition, Gallup found that 24% of employees were “actively disengaged,” meaning they pretty much hated their jobs and would act out to undermine what their coworkers accomplished.

Thankfully, I haven’t felt “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work – at least not yet and I hope never – and I would attribute this to having high levels of trust and comradery with my coworkers. When I worked for a non-profit, one of the reasons why I loved my job so much was because of the people I worked with. When one of us was having a particularly difficult day, the others would swoop in and help out. Together, we helped each other overcome obstacles and achieve our goals. Not only did I find dependable coworkers who I knew had my back, but I also found many of my lifelong friends. As a result, I always felt actively engaged in my work.

The importance of being part of something bigger than yourself

When I think back on my time in the non-profit field, I think of a time in my life when I was a part of something much bigger than myself. I was professionally and personally invested in my work because I felt that what I was doing was making an impact in the world. I think we all should be lucky enough to have that experience.

My four years in the non-profit field had a profound impact in shaping who I am. I feel that it expanded my world view and helped me realize what is really important in life. It also made me more compassionate and empathetic towards others, all qualities which I have brought to my subsequent jobs.

I had the great privilege to witness the resilience of the human soul. I learned to find hope and faith in humanity. And most of all, in the words of Margaret Mead, I learned to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

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