Working in Nonprofit Organizations

By David Mueler

Working For The Revolution?

I don’t remember when this was, sometime around 2000 or 2001. I remember deciding and telling my partner something along the lines of “we all have to have jobs in this society. Well, I want to get jobs that will develop abilities that might be more useful for the revolution.”

Incidentally, I didn’t realize it then but this is a sort of individualized version of an old orthodox Marxist view, that capitalism creates new revolutionary potentials in the working class – this is the source of Marx’s view that capitalism creates and trains its own gravediggers: the proletariat. I figured working in nonprofit organizations that focus on social justice would give me certain skills, let me make the world a somewhat better place on the clock, and keep the evils of capitalism fresh on my mind all the time so I wouldn’t sell out. I guess I thought I should look for jobs that would help me in what I took to be my calling, digging a grave for capitalism.

All of that did happen, sort of – so I guess you could say my plan worked – though technically since we haven’t had the revolution it’s not clear what is and isn’t useful to the revolution.

Second Thoughts

At the same time, I could have gotten the same results in another way. My friend M, for instance, has been organizing on the job as a bike messenger for several years now. His skills and class anger are at least as sharp as mine – sharper, really – and he’s made more of a difference than I ever did when I was full time staff.

The other thing is that I didn’t really think this stuff through. I didn’t realize what I was getting into and I didn’t have clarity on what these places were that I’d be working for. I figured before going into these jobs that these places still operated on a capitalist logic. I was right about my expectations, and yet at the same time I was surprised when they acted like I expected them to. I suppose I wasn’t emotionally ready for my intellectual expectations to be true. Despite my ideas, I got wrapped up in how these jobs were different. Sure, they were capitalist but they were differently capitalist, I thought, I mean it’s not like they were a regular job, after all I was accomplishing important, even radical things at my job. That’s what tied me into the job, my belief that the job was different – uniquely different – from all other job types. I thought my jobs made an important difference and helped me advance my political ideals.

To make sense of this, I want to use a distinction drawn by Ella Baker, who I read about in a great book on her by Barbara Ransby. (Incidentally, Baker would probably disagree with me here.) Baker distinguished between making a living and making a life. The first is how you pay the bills. The second is why you bother. As far as I’m concerned, the first is a major obstacle to the second: it’s hard to make a life when we have to sell so much of our time and energy to make a living. Doing something about that – pushing back and eventually eliminating the capitalist class – is one of the most important projects there is. Period.

Here’s a brief story that helps illustrate this point about making a living and making a life. I’m not religious and my wife’s not religious. My mother-in-law is religious. A few years ago my wife found out her mom had been an agnostic for 10 or 15 years or so. She kept wrestling with it because her father – my wife’s grandfather – had been a pastor. She said that she felt like if she didn’t make her religion work then her father’s life and work had been in vain. Personally, I don’t feel this. On the one hand, I feel like a lot of people’s lives are lived in vain, because we live in a society that steals our lives away. Marx compared capitalism to a vampire; our lives feed a brutal monster of a social order. And this happens through work – work that’s useless or worse. On the other hand, and this is what my wife said, the value of my wife’s grandfather is not in how he made a living, his job as a pastor, it’s in his life, what he did.

The Job Takes Over

I mention this story because one of the reasons some people end up working in nonprofit organizations is that they want to find their day job satisfying and meaningful. That’s understandable. Who doesn’t want a satisfying job, given how much of our lives is spent on the job? But it’s important to make Baker’s distinction, between making a living and making a life. Many people who end up working in the nonprofit industry don’t just want a decent job, they want their job to make a difference. That is, they want to get paid for doing something really important to the world. That’s also understandable. It’s seductive.

People who try to make a living in the arts want to get paid for doing something they want to do and would do anyway. Art is how some people make their life. Trying to make your living in art means trying to get paid for the thing, the art things, you do in making you life. There’s an aspect of this in many nonprofit organizations as well – at least in the so-called social justice organizations, especially if you come from an activist background – but it’s not the same.

In my experience, a lot of the time the nonprofit world works the other way. Instead of making their living by making their life like people live off the arts, people who work for a long time in the nonprofit industry end up making their life out of making their living. Not unlike people in corporate jobs. The job becomes your life.

Depending on where you work in the nonprofit industry, the job will be your life. Think about that for a minute. What’s involved in any job? A paycheck (the making a living part again). And that implies someone who signs the paycheck. A boss. If your life is your job, your boss has even more control over you than a regular boss who just controls your paycheck. 

I had a job at one point, one of my jobs making a difference. We worked 50, 60, 70, 80 hours a week. I loved it. And I was good at it. I was really good at it actually. I’d been good at things before but this was the first thing I’d ever done where I felt like I had extra special talent. That made me love it even more. And I loved the people I was around. I loved the people I was working with – making a difference with, or making a difference for, maybe. I’ll come back to that, “with” and “for.” I loved my coworkers too. We were soldiers for the good fight – which is an addictive feeling, “I make a difference in a way that others only talk about, I’m important and special” – and everyone was smart, funny, well informed, left-leaning… the kind of people I like to be around. Which was lucky, because they were the only people I was ever around. The job became my whole life. So there was no room left in my life for anything else. I dropped off the face of the earth as far as a lot of my friends were concerned. And as far as my partner was concerned.

Eventually I stopped loving it so much. I got tired. Physically, because I wasn’t sleeping anywhere near enough. I developed insomnia around this time in a way I hadn’t really had before and which I still sometimes have. I didn’t have time to take care of myself. I gained some weight. My hair started thinning. I grew some white and grey chest hairs, got sick a lot. And I was emotionally tired. I missed my friends. I missed my partner, missed talking instead of being angry at each other or being sad about how we didn’t spend any time together. I also got tired of taking orders from the bosses. Not just orders about how long we worked and how hard, but orders about what we did and how. Sometimes I got orders I didn’t think were a good idea, and sometimes I had ideas that I thought we might try. So did my other co-workers. We were the ones going door to door talking to people, building relationships with people. We were the ones who cared about those people, not our bosses. To our bosses those people were just pawns. To us they were people we cared about and sometimes we had to fight for them against our bosses. We were also losing staff because no one could sustain the pace of our lifestyle. In about 10 months we had 23 staff come and go, which is not conducive to the long term struggle to make a difference.

In the face of that stuff, we decided to form a union. The boss fought us, and beat us. It was pretty shitty. They did most of the evil stuff in the union busting bible. In addition to all that, they took our people away from us. They swapped us around so we worked with different co-workers. They changed which doors we knocked on. They didn’t let us keep working with the people we had relationships with. All of that was really awful. It was my life and they took it away.

After that union drive ended, I ended up working at another place with progressive values a few months later. The hours were better and the pay was worse. That also turned into a union drive which we also lost, though it worked better than the first time around.

The point is very simple here. Pretty much anywhere you make a living you will have a boss. Your boss has a large measure of control over how you make your living. If you make your life out of how you make your living, then you give your boss that much more control over you. Simple.

Of course, to some degree you can’t get over this. You’re alive while you’re at work. It’s like you will have co-workers and relationships with your co-workers. You may become quite close to your co-workers so that your co-workers become part of how you make your life. In that case, your boss has the same power over you, right? Yes and no.

It makes sense to try to make it so that making your living is part of how you make your life. Do that, by all means, and I hope you succeed. But there’s an important difference. On the one hand there’s trying to make a life while you’re making a living, during the same time, carving out life time during work time and trying to limit how work time impacts the rest of your life. On the other hand there’s making your life out of the way you make a living, making your life out of the how of your job, what you do. Of course these aren’t absolute distinctions, and it’s easy to slip from the first to the second. But it’s the second that really typifies making a living and a life in the nonprofit industry. And other places as well, like in the university for many people.

If your life is what you do for a living, as it is for many people in nonprofits, that’s the special power of the nonprofit boss. I’ve worked as an organizer sometimes, and I love it. It’s like a drug. It becomes who I am. It consumes me, it becomes my whole life and my whole world so that there’s no room for anyone else and if I can I will look for energy from others to plug into organizing. That’s what happened in the story I told before where I pretty much dropped out of some of my relationships. In that case, since I got paid for doing organizing, I was making my life out of the thing I got paid to do.

When I lost those jobs, I was no longer able to do that organizing. That part of how I make my life is taken from me. Of course, you could say “why didn’t you stay involved?” Well, in part because they took the information from me, I didn’t have all of it. In part because I didn’t want to involve the people I was organizing by telling them what was going on – I thought it would be a distraction from the issues I was organizing around, and a distraction at a critical time can really hurt someone – and if I had stuck around my boss would have told them, my boss was willing to hurt those people. Also, after losing those jobs I had to find other ones, which left a lot less time to plug into the old organizing in the way I was used to, on a full time basis and as someone on the outside somewhat, the position of the staff member.

Nonprofit work – differences and similarities

I want to make one other comment, on the phrase “nonprofit organization.” First off, the nonprofits I worked at were all really disorganized. That’s true of the for profit joints I’ve worked too, though. The world’s a jumbled place and it seems miraculous that anything works at all sometimes. And “nonprofit” is a misleading term. Here’s how I understand profit. When you work someplace, your employer wants you to make more money – or make more of whatever it is you make, do more of whatever it is you do that can be exchanged for money – more money than it costs your employer to pay you. It’s simple really. If it costs a place more money to keep you on than the fire you, the odds are pretty good that you’ll be fired unless there’s something atypical going on (like the boss is your parent, or you’re blackmailing them or something).

The difference between the value of what you make for the place you work at and what you get paid, Marx called that difference surplus value. Surplus value is present in the nonprofit world too, and in that sense nonprofits aren’t nonprofit. Nonprofit employers operate according to the same principles as for profit employers. They tend to increase the hours of work and/or the intensity of work. They fight unionization attempts. They tend to fight anything that’s not exactly that they have in mind.

This is because the pay isn’t just monetary in nonprofits. You get paid money as part of your making a living, but people in that industry tend to also make nonprofits a part of how they make a life, which is like saying people get paid in perks like a sense of satisfaction, a self-image of one’s self as someone who makes a difference. If you rock the boat at a nonprofit then you’re threatening not just how your boss makes a living, as in any job, but also how your boss makes a life. And since the nonprofit workplace tends to appeal to higher values, they’ll appeal to those higher values against you, like when Bush invoked freedom to justify bombing and theft.

A lot of nonprofit bosses have put a ton of time into their work. I’ve worked under a lot of bosses who have absolutely no life outside of the job, outside of making a living in a nonprofit. They’ve given up a ton and as a result they’re tremendously protective of what they have. Since all they have is the job, that means they react in a big way to problems at work, including problems like employees expressing their needs. A lot of nonprofit bosses have Louis the 14th syndrome. King Louis said “I am the State!” as in, what’s good for him is good for France and vice versa. The president of General Motors once said “What’s good for General Motors is good for America,” which is a similar idea. Nonprofit bosses, especially in smaller social justice organizations, often have a hard time telling the difference between themselves and the organization. If there’s any criticism or disagreement of how things could be done differently around the organization, they take it as a personal attack. And they take whatever they want and need as being good for the organization, which means any personal disagreement with them is likely to be mapped onto and fought about in terms of – conflict over the organization. 

In conclusion, I’m not arguing that no one should work in nonprofit organizations. If people want to work in jobs that provide some satisfaction and flexibility, nonprofits jobs can be good for a while. They’re also a way to learn some skills. Don’t have illusions about nonprofit organizations. A job in a nonprofit organization is still a job. A nonprofit job is not a good way to make a contribution to revolutionary change and it’s often not a very good contribution even to smaller scale reformist change. In general, working in a nonprofit organization may be a good thing for individual people, though few people find them satisfying over the long term. I say all this because I was naïve about working nonprofit organizations. Even though I had some kind of analysis, I found the environment seductive in a way that blunted by my critical faculties.

Since writing this, I have run into some writings that criticize “the nonprofit industrial complex.” For more about this idea, see or just do an internet search for the term.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: a Radical Democratic Vision (University of North Carolina Press, 2003)


  1. Having worked a largely clerical/gopher job in a nonprofit (i.e. a job that’s decidedly a job FOR rather than WITH) a lot of this resonates. I feel I got to see it with extra clarity because the job was not how I made my life. It did get me much more interested in SNAP politics as class politics, the material difference it makes in workers lives, and how people might think about organizing around/through it. Rather than pursue this interest on the job, I have channeled that through the community radio I produce, which is another story. I worked twelve hours a week because it was the minimum that their fairly decent wage (plus decent sick- and other paid time off) needed to be multiplied to make ends meet for me at the time. I took this job at a severe cut in pay, though also a cut in work-time, from the shitty telecommuting “search engine optimization” gig I had for the year or so prior. I wish maybe that I had made the organization a bit more of my life though, because I never gained the confidence to talk with my coworkers about organizing. After a couple years, my “admin assistant” position was “restructured” into an “executive assistant” to the management.

    Two points of criticism though. The discussion of surplus value is specious and a discredit to the rest of the article. However admittedly simplistic it was supposed to be, the idea that only workers consume the value they create (and any they don’t need to personally consume is surplus) is incomplete in that it ignores the very, very commonsensical way that machines and materials also “consume” value. In this regard, those who who aren’t in on the pedagogic aim in oversimplifying, like being in on a joke, are liable to read that as bullshit agitation. Also, and not all nonprofits operate this way, but when nonprofits make their money largely through grants and foundations, it seems how you agitate around the idea of stolen/created value has to be different than the “traditional business model”. I never figured it out while I was working at the nonprofit I mention, but it seems an obvious puzzle.

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