I Love My Work At a NonProfit, But I Can Barely Afford Groceries

We continue our work because we know the kids need us, and then before we know it we are 30, and have nothing in our savings accounts.
Publish date:
May 25, 2012
career, money, work, nonprofit

Should I have to drink this much iced coffee every day to function?

As a Director at an International Nonprofit, I spend a lot of time being boring, serious and stressed out. Thankfully, I run a large teen program, so unlike most directors, I am allowed to dress like a nutjob -- but I do have to be professional, which can be a bummer, but whatever. #grownupproblems

This summer I will jump from supervising 9 employees to supervising almost 60. My days are spent putting out fires, enforcing policies, creating programming, managing budgets and grooming my staff to someday put me out of a job.

Whatever plans I attempt to make, I never make it out of my office before 7:30 pm. By the time I get to my apartment, it's usually 9 pm. Then I walk my dog, either watch some Netflix or write for this site, and go to bed. It's no wonder I behave like a 21-year-old idiot on the weekends, running around Manhattan until 4 am -- I'm a weekend warrior, gross.

Thankfully, the stress of my job is peppered with a self-prescribed daily minimum of 1 hour in the Teen Center every day, where I play ukulele, make fun of my teens' musical tastes, and eviscerate them at pool. Every. Single. Time. (Classic post-billiards slaughter line: "of course she's good, she used to work in a JAIL." This is an attempt to cheapen my victory, but it only makes it sparkle with bad-assery. Nice try, teenagers.)

I ADORE my kids. They are loud, constantly breaking the rules, have sewer mouths, and regularly disappoint me, but in equal measure: astound, impress, enlighten, challenge and give me hope -- I have seen the future my friends, and it is going to be better. I was also a *huge* asshole as a teenager, so I can not only call their moves, but I can relate and sometimes even help them not screw up.

New York City high schools are application-based speciality schools. (Remember Laguardia HS from Fame? It's real!) Teens apply for schools based on interest, which means that most don't go to school in their own neighborhood, and a lot of times even their own borough. This means that while I work on the Upper West Side ($$$$$, for you non-New Yorkers) a good majority of my regular clients are living in crisis situations: housing projects, temporary shelters, extreme poverty.

Many of my students use our Center as a reason to stay away from their neighborhoods. A 16-year-old we'll call Sam told me last week that he's with us every day because his entire family is in a gang, and because of regular violence from a rival gang, he has been pressured to join the fight and defend his family. They wait for him outside of the subway, after school, trying to give him a gun, and calling him a pussy.

There's no question that there is a need for programs like ours -- for kids like Sam feeling safe is a luxury not afforded to him and his friends, and so our role is to give them as much as we can. The problem lies in the fact that most times, as nonprofit employees we are providing comfort at the expense of our own because our organizations are funded poorly.

We continue our work because we know they need us, and then before we know it we are 30, and have nothing in our savings accounts. At my last teen center job in Vermont, I made $25k/year before taxes, and my rent was $735. After taxes, rent, car payment, gas...I ate a lot of PBJ, and chose which bills would be late every single month.

The high turnover at organizations like mine isn't because the work isn't satisfying -- it's because ultimately employees do one of two things: They move up into administrative positions that pay more but offer less opportunity for direct service, or they leave the field entirely. What about those of us who don't want to stop doing direct service? We keep eating PBJ and dodging debt collectors until we get a letter in the mail from a law firm representing Capital One, and we realize that good karma won't get us out of everything, so we get a director job. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

I spend time in the Teen Center every day no matter what, because by now I've learned that the biggest problem with a career in human services is that the more you succeed and get promoted, the further you get from the population you are serving. It is a frustratingly backward truth that the $8/hr part-time after school counselors who work for me have my goddamned dream job, but also have no health insurance and most times they live with their parents.

My ex used to do direct service with young men with autism -- he found the job on a tear-off flier in a coffee shop and was hired with no experience. His supervisors, directors with MSW degrees and years of experience working with the autistic population, sat at desks and scheduled people like him, dealt with admin tasks, payroll, supervision. Besides being a compassionate human, he had no skills which would equip him for the challenges he faced. Something is very wrong with human services right now, y'all.

I often wonder how long I'll be able to take it -- my job is exhausting, and unlike a lot of other exhausting and demanding professions, my salary does not afford me the luxury of balance. I can barely afford to buy my groceries, nevermind reward myself for my efforts, or replenish my exhausted body. I run mostly on the adrenaline that pumps into my veins when someone like Sam asks for help and I can give it to him. Those days I ride the train home smiling, and my momentum is replenished.

I take my work home with me, most nights, though, and more and more I am here on the weekends, struggling to do right by my job and doing wrong by myself. Fridays where I know I will probably work all weekend are the pits. I’m writing this on one of those days, having forced myself to take a lunch break and ignore the pile of papers on my desk.

I don't have an answer for this problem -- eventually I know I will tire of the struggle -- and then what? Get a job that pays me well and bury the urge for fulfillment through my career? I can always volunteer, but I will lose my relevance to the kids I love working with the most -- they can smell struggle, and it connects us.

I’ve seen the way they look at the volunteers who come in to “get a taste” of what it’s like to help, and I wouldn’t want them to look at me that way. Just like my tattoos gave me cred working with convicts (silly but 100% true), my sad lunch and ripped tights tell my teens now that I understand struggle. For now I try to write as much as I can, to help supplement, but man, I am tired.

How long can I possibly keep this up?