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I QUIT! Naming toxicity in non-profit work environments.

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Last week I quit my nonprofit job. I’ve decided to step away from nonprofit work in favour of focusing on homesteading, reading tarot cards online and writing. And I’ve decided this will be the last nonprofit I work for. Maybe I will take contract work here and there, but it won’t be my main income source anymore. In some ways this was an unexpected change. I was planning to stay with this job for another year or two – to gradually work my way out of the position and into self-employment.  But then I spent a week having panic attacks and received one of the most emotional harsh (dare I say abusive?) emails I’ve ever received in a work place and suddenly my limits showed up hard. I had been having a feeling of unsafety in my gut for about 2 weeks before this all happened. I couldn’t quite figure out where it was coming from.

Now I know.

Since I moved away from the city my work has actually been one of the most stable forces in my life. I would show up at the youth center almost every weekend and the pay cheque would arrive in my bank the next week, every other week. There was a comforting regularity to the whole thing, even though I wasn’t paid even close to a living wage. I met a lot of amazing people and built some really valuable relationships with community members who I respect tremendously. I feel very grateful for those relationships. I also feel a deep gratitude for my mom and family, my broader community, the land I live on and – lets be real here – I’m also grateful for the undeniable middle class privilege that helps keep me afloat when I make bold gestures like abruptly quitting my horribly-organized-rapidly-soul-sucking nonprofit job.

So, you might ask, how can I have both gratitude for the people I worked with and see my old job as soul sucking? How can I hold such contradictory feelings? Well. I’m going to tell you.

I have worked in nonprofits for about 10 years. I define work as labour that I offer in exchange for some kind of compensation. Sometimes that compensation is money, sometimes it’s community ties, sometimes it’s feeling like a good person because I’m contributing to creating a more just world. It’s all work and it’s all labour. I have worked on some really great projects. And even more than that I have worked with some incredible people – seriously power-house humans who I am endlessly grateful to call my friends and community.

I have always favoured working in nonprofits because I can’t see myself doing work that doesn’t feel like it is, at least in some way, undermining and addressing the brokenness that is our current system. I want to fight colonial capitalism with all it’s racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist trappings. And I don’t think I’m alone in that desire motivating my nonprofit work. So why, after all these years, am I walking away from the work I’ve grown to rely on? This body of work that is so seamlessly woven into my identity as a community organizer, educator, harm reduction advocate and youth worker?

Because to be totally honest with you: I think most nonprofits are toxic.

I think the unspoken assumptions and understandings that underlay the construction of most nonprofit organizations are fundamentally broken and flawed.

Here’s why.

We don’t do nearly enough to address burnout.

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Lots of people have written about burnout. Almost every person I know who does nonprofit work has experienced it. Our “movements” are literally losing people all the time because of it and we are not doing anything meaningful or truly effective (that I have witnessed) to address it.

So what is burnout?

I see burnout as the process where in all my vital life energy is drained by something I once used to care about deeply. It’s kind of like the feeling of a super slow and deeply wounding break up – except in this case your lover is your work. For me burnout feels like being half-awake in a cloudy paradoxical dream scape that I can’t wake up from. It feels like an absence of feeling. An absence of passion (which for a triple fire sign is totally disorienting). An absence of the deep love and fire that once motivated all my work in the world. It feels like the fire burned right through me and left only lifeless ashes in its wake. It feels like living in the shadow of a stolen dream and having no sense that hope has ever or can ever exist. It leaves me with very little left to navigate the world other than defensive reflexes and constant meltdowns. And the pain is particularly grievous because it is associated with something I used to love and believe in deeply.

You see what I mean about the break up metaphor? It really works here.

I’ve experienced burnout many times. First after the Olympics in Vancouver, then again after years of work on anti-tanker campaigns, then again when I left UBC after nearly finishing my degree, and then again with anti-oppressive organizing around yoga in Vancouver. I live with the impacts of it every day. I have never fully recovered from it and I don’t imagine I ever will. Usually my life changes drastically when I’m going through it and never goes back to the way it was before. Most of the time this change is for the better, but it always carries a heavy dose of grief.

Activist burnout is so prolific that it’s even included in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual or DSM. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have my issues with the DSM and the western medical model. But I think it speaks levels that even a totally mainstream text acknowledges this phenomenon. So, if we are willing to accept that this epidemic is true, what are we willing to do about it?

In my experience, not much. Usually when someone leaves the work because of burnout, we wave them good bye and rarely see them again. Maybe we see them around at large yearly marches or in shared geographical spaces but if not, we may have no idea what happens with their life after they leave us, save the occasional distant facebook update. Though often people going through burnout also disconnect from social media.

And this, my friends, is the process by which we cocreate labour-dependent community. Meaning, our access to community is largely dependent on the work we do,  rather than our worthiness as humans who simply deserve to be loved and cared for just for existing, having needs or having big dreams and love in our hearts.

This expectation is grounded in ableist notions that only certain kinds of activism are valid and that our worth as human beings is directly tied to our labour output.

So why does this happen? Why do we just drop people when they leave the movement? And often at the times when they need community support the most? Well one part of the reason is that we are too fucking tired and busy to do anything else. When I was working as a full time campaigner I was 21, working 40 hours a week or more, taking 2 university level classes, sitting on the student union, and shutting down corporate offices on my vacation time. One thing I was constantly told was how I was “such an impressive young person”. People were constantly praising me for doing so much and unknowingly encouraging my impending complete and total mental-emotional-spiritual break down. They were praising me into unhealthy life habits that very much mirrored the values and expectations of capitalism, where we work all the time until we die and never pay attention to the ways the process is killing us.

imagesThere are other reasons burnout happens. A big one is the nonprofit culture of completely unreasonable work ethic. At almost every nonprofit I have worked at there is a tacit (or sometimes completely outright) expectation that people will work for free, even if they are paid staff. Most of the jobs pay less than a living wage, many of them are contract work and almost none of them offer benefits – and yet, we are supposed to do them for free because of how much we love the work, our obligations to the community, and the dire needs of the people we are serving. I have taken a public position in nonprofits before that I will not work when I am not being paid because I know that is something that leads to burnout for me and I have seen people rail against this position, treating me as if I am entitled for simply stating boundaries that allow me to take care of my very basic needs.

Now, I want to clarify that I have done tonnes of free work. I’m not being paid for this piece of writing unless someone books a tarot card reading with me, for example. And there is much work done in the name of struggle that is necessary, part of survival or simply just linked to a passionate drive to create change. I am not bashing or erasing any of this. I think it’s important to do work for free when it’s something that I love and I also think that money is not the only way something can be valuable to me. I very much appreciate trade, for example. I also know many people are forced to do unpaid labour simply to survive and I don’t mean to erase the necessity or unfairness of those pressures. What I am addressing here is nonprofit work where in I am supposed to be making an hourly wage to deliver programming or services that I generally did not create and usually have very little meaningful influence over how it is delivered. Ie: non profit work where I am working for a boss as an employee. There are not very many jobs where it is acceptable to subtly force or expect people to work for free and yet this is totally common practice in nonprofits. And the worst part is, we don’t usually address this when we work in nonprofits because the markets for these jobs is so competitive and cliquey that we would rather get a job that works us into the ground doing something we believe in (for now), than not have a job at all. Because hey, for every 18 year old unpaid intern on their way out, there is always another 18 year old unpaid intern willing to work for free to get a “dream job”.

This type of work ethic is effecting us in more ways than creating physical exhaustion and financial instability. It also contributes to the very common lateral violence that takes place in non-profit settings. In my experience folks who work for non-profits are often literally worried sick about the current state of the world. Often our bodies start calling in injuries and sickness as a signal that we need to slow down. In order to deal with our grief and fear and pain we do what we know how to do best. We work. We work and work and work and swallow our feelings and put off self care and emotional processing in favour of seeking some kind of signal from outside of ourselves that everything might eventually be stable, or at least better than it currently is. We seek comfort and identity in our work because we often don’t know any better way to relate to ourselves or other people. This drive leaves us exhausted and commonly with very little skills to take care of ourselves or address the pain and trauma we are carrying. And this results in behaviour like the emotionally berating email I received this week that lead me to decide to quit my job.

Burn out is an epidemic we are living with and we are failing at meaningfully addressing it.

We have a harmful lack of understanding of how power operates.

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Recently at a direct action training I facilitated an exercise where we mapped power. Specifically we were mapping sites where direct action could take place. There were many sites and all of them existed in places that many people who work for nonprofits would categorize as “outside”. They were places like site of consumption, site of destruction, site of decision making. All of these places are typically seen as outside of the organizations we work for. This idea contributes to binary thinking where in we see people like Stephen Harper as having all the power, and everyone else as relatively equal and struggling against the theoretical “man”. Similar logic under-rides many people’s understanding of the 99% vs. 1% idea that came out of the Occupy movement.

I think that this attitude, which I have seen held by many people doing nonprofit activism work, has two fundamental problems. The first is that it implies that activist work isn’t happening through people simply living and surviving. For example take site of destruction – a site of destruction can be the body of a trans person when they are denied adequate access to health care because of their gender presentation. It can also be land upon which industrial extraction is taking place. This means that living as a trans person and indigenous people living on traditional territories despite centuries of repeated violence, are in and of themselves acts of resistance. And yet, we don’t see these things as activism, typically. Unless they are explicitly framed in that way and then shared in social media – then we might start to understand it. Not to mention you will never see a grant for just existing as trans. We don’t see survival as valid and fundamentally important activist work. There are many reasons we often don’t see it this way including but not limited to being blinded by privilege, having a saviour complex, lacking an intersectional approach to our work and having a very limited scope of what it means to challenge systems of power.

The second reason I see this attitude as being problematic is that it totally erases the way that power is often unevenly held within organizations themselves. If power is something outside that we face with our activist work, then it’s hard for us to see it as something that we hold within our relationships to each other. We often don’t see power as something we hold over each other or that is held over us, though the latter is usually much easier to notice because of how it impacts our daily lives. This lack of understanding of how power operates shows up in many ways. For the sake of brevity I will only focus on only a few examples, though let me assure you, the examples are literally endless.

One of the ways this lack of understanding power manifests in our work is the way that we take some people’s opinions and ideas as valid and not others. I can not tell you the number of times I have spoken to front line workers (including myself) who understand problems about their work that no one in management ever takes seriously, no matter how many times issues and concerns are brought up. The people on the ground are commonly paid less and often have the best understanding of how the programs function and effect the people they are meant to assist. And yet front line workers’ ideas, needs and concerns are taken the least seriously. My partner refers to this as pumps vs. sensible shoes. They believe that you can tell who is in management by their footwear. Front line workers usually wear sensible shoes and management folks usually wear pumps. This difference illustrates the ways that nonprofits replicate classist ideas of what leadership is, who is respected, whose ideas are valid and ultimately what leadership physically looks like. All of this is deeply tied up in respectability politics, which is something nonprofits are usually willfully ignorant to.

Often the people who are doing front line work are people from affected communities with life experience, whereas people in upper management are often folks who are coming from outside the affected community but who have educational credentials that allow them to be perceived as being more valuable to the organization and therefore more capable of taking on leadership roles. All of this is related to how decisions are made and how decision making power is held. And it is undeniably tied to the all too common lack of genuine decentralized decision making that is present in most nonprofits. In my experience, we think we don’t rely on hierarchy as our power structure, and maybe it’s not a CEO vs minimum wage kind of hierarchy, but heiarchy is typically the power structure we rely on. Not naming power structures keeps them from ever being addressed or changed and not addressing them allows for these power imbalances to continue on unabated. Yet it’s totally understandable that we are scared to name it and demand change, considering the competitiveness of the job market and the financial insecurity so common in this work.

Another way power and oppression play out in nonprofits is in the educational and emotional labour required from marginalized people to simply exist in the workplace. When there is a lack of understanding of how power exists in our organizations marginalized people have to deal with often constant micro-aggressions and they are expected to do this with a smile on their face and be grateful for their pay cheque, as it happens. And if they choose to address the violence and ignorance they are dealing with then they take on on unpaid labour just to make their workplace vaguely livable. We see this in the ways that men speak over women, even in women dominated spaces. In the ways that queer and trans folks are forced to hide or constantly explain their sexual orientations or gender identities. In the ways that class dynamics are largely ignored even while some people have benefits and salaries and others are on inconsistent contracts with no security. And we see it in the ways that folks of colour and folks with disabilities are constantly made to point out or swallow how their workplaces are ignoring their very legitimate needs, concerns and identities. And the thing that is hardest about this is that the marginalized people carry the entire burden of the oppressive dynamic because the people with more power have no fucking clue it’s happening unless it is spelled out for them. And when organizations are so lucky as to have someone provide emotional and education labour for them it is often met with disrespectful defensiveness, especially from folks who hold privileges they feel are being challenged by the education work.

These dynamics are a trap and are exhausting to exist in and they are yet another reason why burn out is so prolific.

Finally, and I think very significantly, hiring practices are very deeply influenced by power in ways we rarely ever acknowledge. Who gets hired for nonprofit jobs? In my experience it’s mostly middle class white folks without physical disabilities. Sometimes they are gay. Sometimes they are trans. Usually they have a university education and if they don’t they might get hired for life experience related reasons, but rarely ever make it into a management position. And yes, I am generalizing here, but this is my experience. I was hired by nonprofits because I am a white person with middle class privilege. I was able to do unpaid internships in my late teens and that allowed nonprofits to see the quality of my work and that meant that they ended up hiring me for paid work. This is the path we set up for most nonprofit employment opportunities. It’s a path that discourages diversity because it doesn’t acknowledge that access to the path is incredibly skewed in favour of people who are less challenged by the current system.

All of this, is a HUGE part of why nonprofits often fail at meaningfully addressing the systems of power they claim to be working to undermine.

We have a misleading obsession with bottom lines, numbers and strategy.

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So much of what we calculate as success in the nonprofit world is judged from a quantitative or numbers based perspective. How many petition signatures did we get? How many people clicked through? How much money was raised? How many interactions did we have with service users? And much of this is driven by maintaining access to rapidly dwindling grant funding.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think getting clear about goals is great. And I think sometimes numbers can be super helpful for understanding how things works. What I don’t think makes sense is seeing numbers as more important than relationships, feelings, spiritual sustenance, emotional and physical sustainability and the quality of our work.

For example I once worked for a nonprofit where my main job was to gather signatures for a large petition. My boss calculated how much time each petition signature in a working day should take in order to reach what he thought was a suitable goal. He thought it was about 1.5 minutes. I told him that sure, I could do that, I could get tonnes of signatures from people who didn’t really know what was happening. I told him that if I did things that way that when I went to actually try and organize those folks none of them would show up because the interaction lacked the basic quality of human connection needed to inspire people to form long lasting and resilient activist communities. This, I will add, is another great example of clueless upper management demanding something happen in a way that makes no sense, and ignoring the very legitimate wisdom of front line workers. This same nonprofit told me that I couldn’t say that indigenous resistance would defeat pipelines, because I had to say that the petition (which was largely managed by grant funded white folks) would be the saving grace of the movement. This is an example of organizations having a totally skewed understanding of how power works and is held. They were so blinded by their privilege and desire for job security that they couldn’t see where the true power in the movement was held. And they especially couldn’t see that what really needed to happen was we needed to learn to shut up, get out of the way and be better allies.

Understanding success based on numbers and stats is, whether we want to admit it or not, a very old sexist and colonial way to understand the world. It is also the way that many governments and corporations calculate capitalist success and power accumulation. It’s a way of understanding the world that is based on imperialist values and power structures. It suggests that things that are measurable are more real or valid than things like emotional intelligence, sensing energies or spiritual teaching. Numbers and left brain thinking are typically associated with men and white people. Intuitive and right brain understanding are typically associated with women and non-white people.  These distinctions are so deeply ingrained in how we understand the world that we don’t even notice how harmful or prolific they are. In my opinion, there are useful aspects of both and if we sway to hard in one direction or the other we risk loosing the valuable aspects of both.

We NEED to learn to understand our work as being linked to power and we need to hold that understanding in more complex and self reflexive ways than strategy and stats. If we can’t do that we’re simply attempting, as Audre Lorde so aptly put, to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. We need to create and affirm our own culture, our own tools, if we hope to do anything other than recreate the systems we are claiming to challenge. It is fundamentally important that we learn to support marginalized communities to use the tools and cultural knowings that have been forced and shamed out of them for generations. If we can’t do these things then we are simply playing a game by rules that are set up for us to lose every time. Part of the reason that governments and corporations give money to nonprofits is to keep them muzzled and under thumb. We need to learn what sets us apart and actually work to create the world we want to live in, not just react to and replicate the world we’ve inherited in exchange for a steady pay cheque. Which, by the way, is also one of the reasons we need to learn more about our ancestors of struggle and learn who are activist elders are. Because, I hate to break it to you, we are not the first generation to have experienced these dynamics, not even close. We can learn a lot if we can learn to listen to wisdom that our elders carry.

There are some amazing poets, academics and activists who have been producing work on these topics far before I came to these ideas. They formed some of my road map out of the nonprofit industrial complex and I have immense gratitude for them. If you are wanting to deepen your learning and understanding of these topics I would recommend Starhawk’s book The Empowerment Manual and a fantastic anthology The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-profit Industrial Complex. If you want to understand how trauma and burnout lives within activist communities I would recommend Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in Violent World, A Guide for Activists. Another great resource on this same topic but from a totally different perspective is Caring For Yourself is a Radical Act: Self Care for Youth Working in Community Guide. And I would also recommend that folks who are struggling with burnout check out things like community acupuncture clinics, where incredible work is being done to foster “sleeping revolutions”.

And because I believe in the power of poetry I want to share with you a particularly poignant passage from Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s recent book Body Maps:

white bois with eager butts
and nonprofit jobs you wanted
are just like whole foods take out:
when you are too tired
to cook your own food
you can pay too much
for a tasteless version of your culture
that promises it won’t kill you.
afterwards, a greasy crunched compostable box
and debit charge so much more expensive
than you budgeted for.

I firmly believe in my heart that people who are drawn to nonprofit work have pure intentions. I know that we see, feel and know that mama earth is not so slowly, very effectively, and totally understandably working to remove us. I know that we are both witnesses to and victims of systems of power that are hell bent to undermine our ability to love well and be fierce together.

I think that our hope, drive and dreams are worthy of so much more than grant writing and budget balancing. I want to see a world where activists and change makers break free of the banal and create changes that represent real and palpable threats to systems of power. And it is for this reason that I am taking the leap and not working for the ticky tacky boxes of the nonprofit world any longer.


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5 comments

  1. What a fantastic article, I can relate on so many levels. Good for you for moving in new directions; I have as well. I hope that we can reverse the shift toward corruption and maintaining ineffective, arcane power structures in favour of collectivist decision-making principles. An ex-manager once mused mournfully, “I wish we didn’t have to operate in a hierarchy, but it’s the only power structure we know works.” I regret not speaking up about examples that do work that are collectivist based i.e. Roberts Rules or consensus. In my most recent experience working on the front lines, my manager had less education than I did and many others, which posed further insecurity and defensive filibustering.

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