For the first time since graduating from college over 30 years ago, I’m not working full-time. I want to tell you it feels great, liberating, joyous. But I would be lying. Achievement and productivity have been my central organizing principle as far back as I can remember. Without the structure of full-time work, I am having to find my way back to myself, a self that had long been buried in busy-ness.
I keep reading and hearing that Americans are in an existential crisis post-lockdown, quitting jobs to find more purposeful ones. I know that work is not the answer.
I have spent decades in jobs that had meaning, that connected me to a cause broader than myself. I chose to work in youth development, immigrant rights, democracy reform, and I am grateful I could do so.
However, I believed in the inherent purposefulness and mission-driven nature of nonprofit work, and that blinded me to the flaws in the movement. We naively believe we are somehow purer, better, more dedicated than those who choose corporate life. In fact, there is a movement ladder all too similar to the corporate ladder.
Movement leaders like me are subjected to, and subject themselves to, standards prescribed by a context around us. In our world, it may not be as much about a promotion and higher salary, although those are milestones that exist in all sectors. Nor is there always a defined hierarchy from entry level to CEO.
In some ways, the nonprofit sector has a more insidious code, an implicit hierarchy that places value on one thing over another. Running a national organization is on a higher rung than a local organization; large organizations are often seen as more worthy of investing in than small ones, regardless of impact. National media mentions, television appearances, fellowships, those are the metrics of our world. Writing a book, being on prestigious boards, running for higher office, all of these help leaders build an aura of success often disconnected from the actual work, and more importantly, from personal satisfaction.
This ladder is more of a hamster wheel, as Sonya Renee Taylor has pointed out. It’s no wonder that we feel physically depleted and spiritually undernourished. Often, we become disconnected from our teams and the community engagement that drew us to movement…