When I meet new people in social settings, my favorite moment is when I’m asked what I do for a living. The answer — “I run a nonprofit racehorse adoption ranch — often creates a flurry of surprised faces and eager questions. People like hearing about horse-related jobs, especially ones with a charitable twist. And I enjoy telling entertaining stories about the vivid racehorse personalities I’ve encountered. A perfect antidote to the usual tales of management positions and sterile office jobs.
At one party, a woman with wire rimmed glasses latched on to the nonprofit part of my work. Shaking her head, she intoned sadly, “That’s so wonderful. You alleviate suffering. I admire that so much.” Hiding my internal wince with a smile, I quickly retreated in search of a more cheerful conversational partner elsewhere.
It took me a few days to figure why I found her response so off-putting. After all, she was complimenting me, in her depressive sort of way. She saw me as an altruistic hero, committed to wearily combating evil and hardship in the name of charitable do-gooding. Yet nothing could be further from truth. In reality, I do this for my pleasure — because I love ex-racehorses and the never-dull challenge of finding them new jobs. I once read a quote that summed up my attitude toward nonprofit work perfectly:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.
Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do it.
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
– Harold Thurman Whitman
Many people yearn for meaningful work, to make a difference in the world. Some are drawn to nonprofit endeavors, but aren’t sure how to take that plunge. As someone who unexpectedly ended up starting a nonprofit, I can offer some practical advice.
- Meaningful work needs to be meaningful to you. The first (and most important) step is to recognize what you truly love to do, no matter how odd, selfish or utterly non-charitable it may seem. I believe that we do the most good when we inspire other people. To do that, we must be passionate about our work. So, do you go crazy for deep sea fishing? Then deep sea fish and invite disadvantaged youth along. Do you obsess over snowboarding? Then snowboard and volunteer for a mountain conservation program. Are you a hardcore political junkie? Then find a job with a policy think tank or advocacy group.
- Experiment with nonprofit work before committing further. It’s easy to volunteer your time for a local organization that interests you. Most groups are happy to work out a schedule that fits your time availability. If animal welfare inspires you, help a local dog or cat rescue with fostering, adoption approvals or fundraising. Short on time? Volunteer for a one-day fundraiser (such as a fun run, silent auction or concert) — helpers are often in short supply for these events and your assistance will make a big difference. Volunteering gives you a great opportunity to learn more about the people and mission of the organization. If the work is a good match, you can steadily increase your time commitment (or apply for a position).
- Don’t assume that nonprofit work must be dreary, hard or unpleasant in order to “count” as charitable. Before I started the racehorse adoption ranch, I worked for several nonprofits (non-equestrian) as a finance/administrative manager. The organizations included economic think tanks, art schools and an education training association. While their budgets were smaller than for-profit groups, each nonprofit had interesting job descriptions, fun fringe benefits (like free art lessons) and a casual office environment. I enjoyed the nonprofit culture so much that I rarely have pursued employment in traditional business.
- The biggest downside to nonprofit employment is that the pay is usually lower than in the private sector. However, I’ve found that the trade-off of doing what I love more than outweighs this consideration. In many ways, my personal finances have improved since taking a salary cut as a nonprofit ranch manager. Because I enjoy my days at work (instead of dreading or merely tolerating them), I have much more creative energy. My lifestyle has simplified greatly since I now no longer fill my weekends with expensive recreational activities to “recover” from the work week. On the positive side, many nonprofits try to balance their lower pay scales with good benefits, flexible schedules and other quality of life features. Before you take the plunge, review your household budget and do a cost-benefit analysis of full-time nonprofit employment. The results will help you make the right job decision and give you good information about your current lifestyle priorities.
- You don’t have to be a nonprofit employee to do meaningful work. If manufacturing machine parts or selling antique jewelry is your passion, then start a for-profit business and work at your heart’s delight every day. Because that is ultimately what makes the biggest difference in the world — people doing what they love and enjoying their life to the hilt. That’s what I did and look what happened. And if you feel guilty about making lots of money at your passion, just give me a call. I’ve a great nonprofit racehorse adoption ranch you can endow.