So here’s a popular belief about the non-profit world – we who have sacrificed cushy jobs and careers so that we may plunge our lives in the service of others, have risen up through the hierarchy that Maslow theorised around, and are now leading the life of self-actualized individuals.
A load of crap. At best. At worst, a terrible misrepresentation of the life of professionals in this space, who feel as vulnerable, stressed, and anxious as the bank salesman who needs to meet his monthly targets. We don’t need research to tell us we’re stressed: we can feel it in our fingers, we feel it in our toes.
Let’s take a closer look at the typical year of a senior professional in the non-profit world, and then I think we can all reconcile better with their mental health and well-being. Or not.
January to March
Basically worrying about how the hell we’ll survive the coming year (i.e., pay salaries that no donor wants to pay for). Even if said salaries are cleverly disguised as team step-backs, strategy sessions, and “reflective conversations,” they do absolutely nothing to calm you down. Instead, they raise your anxiety levels a notch higher.
Preparing, refining, and re-refining grant renewal proposals, and hoping to God for one more year’s extension. Mastering wordsmithing and semantics (just read the impact report)!
So much for mental health.
April to August
Basically hiring (because you managed to, against all odds, get a new CSR partner), training the new hire, and wondering how on earth the candidate got the job in the first place. (For the record, it’s likely lack of options, coupled with terrible interviewing skills, both of the non-profit.)
Trying to figure out how your program works (a.k.a reading the strategy section of your earlier grant proposals three times a day). Meeting endlessly with your team members, who have a completely different view of the program (that’s how you measure training effectiveness). Somehow managing to get them all together in their heads with a basic common understanding of what to do (how to ensure that we show effective utilization of donor money).
Responding to endless and meaningless questions from your auditor whose firm considers it their moral obligation to ask you why you and the team are drawing salaries – particularly because you are an NGO, and it is repeated, have taken the plunge in the service of others.
Counting to 10 every time you get asked this question, and then with unprintable words in your head, giving polite responses such as “Our donor has approved it” or “We’re providing dedicated service to our beneficiaries”.
Holding responses to the auditor till the filing deadline comes, in a who-will-blink-first scenario. Most of the time, the auditor gives up and files the accounts, because otherwise he can’t bill you. Just answer me this: How come they won’t do your filing for free, but expect you to give your life away for free?
By this time, we’ve given up on being, let alone well-being.
September to December
Basically trying to cover the hole in your budget that you haven’t found a donor for. More importantly, hoping and praying that the CSR commitment that you were promised eight months ago comes through – else you’re screwed. The weeks are spent carefully working out the algorithm of following-up with your committed amounts – frequent enough to ensure that they don’t give away your money to someone else with a sadder-looking child in their brochure, and spaced out well enough so you don’t look desperate (so what else is new?).
While doing all this, also putting on a brave face for the team (much like a duck who’s paddling furiously underwater). Also planning team events, buying ice cream for everyone just because everyone needs to “chill”, doing learning circles (“Learning is a journey”-type logic). After all, don’t we non-profit folks derive our energy from challenges?
Looking at funding visibility for the upcoming year, and furiously counting the years since you “started” operations, and figuring out if you are eligible to receive foreign funds, as if there is a long queue of foreign funders simply waiting for you. And as if the government is simply waiting to approve said certification.
And of course, we’re back to January – the only resolution we take is that we should at least take one break the next year. Too much work. Not enough downtime.
And then you see a social media debate around work-life balance for NGOs. After all, saving the world can’t stop at 5.30 p.m., right?
Mental health and well-being be damned.