The Way We Should Be Talking About Our Nonprofit Jobs

I was entirely familiar with the question, yet I had to stop and think about the question. What was the best way to give them the answer they were looking for that would also get my point across?

“So, I know I should know this, but what exactly is it that you do?”

My gut reaction was to say “I work for a nonprofit.” It is the truth, after all. But the moment I utter those words, I paint myself into a corner. And you’re doing it, too.

I recently read an article by Abby Daniels that made me truly think about the way I respond to that question. In it, she explained how she used to respond with the generic nonprofit answer, but no longer responds this way.

I no longer say, “I work in nonprofit,” which was perceived as “I work for a charity, so I don’t make much money, and I might ask you for some money.” Instead, I say, “I work to expand education access for kids,” and my hope is that I convey “all kids are deserving of a great education, and a great education can shore up some of the inequality our society still suffers.”

Talk about powerful insight. Let’s break it down even further.

What Happens When You Give That Answer

We hear it over and over from every profession. Doctor. Teacher. Lawyer. And we all have preconceived notions about each of those professions. I personally don’t like going to the doctors’ office, and I immediately think of my bad experiences and long waits involved there. That’s not a good way to start out, is it?

Similar to the example, the nonprofit industry also has its share of preconceived notions

  • “Great, now they’re going to ask me for money.”
  • “Oh, so you don’t really make any money.”
  • “That’s sweet, you’re trying to save the world.”
  • “So you’re saying you don’t have an actual job…”

Not everybody thinks these things about nonprofits, and there are definitely some points not listed, but the reality is you can’t change or predict what people think about your job, and you’ll never know what that thought will be. That’s why we should be leading off with something else. Here’s how was can shape it to make sure we’re being heard.

What We Should Be Saying

It comes back to the rules of storytelling that we have learned from people like Lori Jacobwith.

For me, the answer starts with a statement. It’s a personal mantra of sorts—a personal mission statement. “I’m doing something that I absolutely love.” (Nobody is going to find fault with that statement, right?) And it’s the truth.

Next, I talk about the skills that I’m using. “I use my journalism skills to help other nonprofit organizations who are trying to change the world. I write articles about fundraising, marketing and so much more which helps all types of different organizations.” That’s the basics of what I do for my job.

Then I can go into the fact that we, too, operate as a nonprofit organization, but my first few sentences give them a chance to understand what I’m actually doing in my 9-5 life (which is a figure of speech, because we all know that nonprofit hours are much more odd than that).

Finally, I talk about some of the different organizations we’ve helped, and why my work is so important to me.

So, nonprofiteers—I challenge you to rethink the way you’re responding when people ask you about your work. Again I ask:

What do you do?

  • really?

    No one has ever thought that because I work for a nonprofit I am going to ask them for money. That is a really short-sighted comment. I’ve only ever worked for nonprofits, and I have 1. never asked a friend or acquentance for money and 2. have never had someone infer that upon learning what I do.

    • Please keep in mind that your experience is your experience, not everyone’s.

    • I definitely did not mean to imply that any of those preconceived notions were absolute or that every single one applied to each individual. I merely meant it as a list of examples. However, I’m glad to hear that you’re doing donor cultivation the right way!

      • Sai

        I get what you mean. In countries like India, they don’t even think it, they just say it. This is a good article thanks.

    • PeaceLoveBacon

      I don’t think it’s short-sighted at all. I think your experience is the exception, not the rule. Many, many people think nonprofit = fundraising. Because it’s true! I have a hard time believing you have never asked a friend or acquaintance to support your organization monetarily. Maybe you didn’t straight up ask for a donation, but attend an event? Buy a raffle ticket?

  • Janet Kester

    I think you make some good points here. Thanks!

  • Chris Bouchard

    Great article and I can definitely relate. As a grant writer, I always have a tough time with that question. However, I do so much more than grant writing so I find myself telling people that I work with non profits to help them develop and grow.