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Why I work in non-profits

Over the past several years, many people have asked me why I work in non-profits. When they find out that I was once at UCONN Law, and quit law school, they are even more intrigued. Why would someone ditch a potentially lucrative career for the same long and sometimes crazy hours but at a painfully lower salary? Or, even if I didn't want to become an attorney, why not at least go for a mainstream job where I could work regular hours and make more money?

Simply put, I love helping people. I get to work every day to make people's lives a little better and the bottom line is not how much profit we make, but the positive difference we make. When we're talking about dollars, it's not going into the bloated paycheck of a CEO, but back into the organization to keep making a difference. When finances get tight, the mentality isn't a "how is this going to affect me?", but "how is this going to affect our mission and what we are trying to accomplish for our community?". It makes going home each night that much more satisfying.

I've worked in three different sectors of non-profits--homeless and hunger, health and the arts. As varied as the missions are, there are certain commonalities that persist. First, there is a real sense of a team and support that I didn't find when I worked in insurance companies or law offices during college. There is a genuine sense of caring and wanting to do what's best for the populations we serve. No two days were the same, and no one was above the grunt work. Executive directors will stuff envelopes, haul junk and clean up messes of all sorts alongside the admin assistants. When facing real challenges, everyone pitches in to find a solution. When you don't succeed like you hope, there is someone there to reassure you and help you to succeed the next time.

I'm not saying we're constantly holding hands and happily skipping through our semi-rundown offices (because, being a non-profit, fancy offices are not in the budget). There are certainly many of the same workplace issues you find anywhere--personalities will clash, gossip will rear its ugly head, and slacking will occur.

However, when it comes down to it, everyone there is working for the same cause; and that cause is not to bring home a fatter paycheck. You work to make sure one more family has a good meal on the table and roof over their heads; you work to raise that extra dollar for the research that may bring a cure for a genetic disease; you work to make sure you can bring the arts to kids who otherwise would not exposed to them.

I've also been asked--especially when finances have been tough--why I don't find a job in the corporate world where the pay is better, and just volunteer for a cause close to me. Unfortunately, as rewarding as volunteering is, it's just not enough for me. I need to be a part of a cause in my every day life, not just a few hours a week. I'd rather bring home a smaller paycheck and love my job than being more financially secure and not love where I spend my days. That's why I work in non-profits.

Perhaps some day I will move out of the non-profit sector, but I can't see that day coming any time soon.

Listen to my audio essay about working in non-profits today on the Colin McEnroe Show on NPR!