Political Nonprofit Pitfalls

Working at a nonprofit says a lot about you. It’s an inherent trade off that many of us know all too well: you get to believe, really believe, in what you’re doing—and you get to do it for less money than in the corporate world. Even if your job is mostly data entry, saying you work for an organization that feeds the hungry or helps young people achieve their scholarly dreams makes you a do-gooder by default.

My workplace, like yours, provides needed services. My workplace, perhaps like yours, has a 501(c)(4) political arm. And my workplace, presumably unlike yours, has protesters outside every day.

With election season around the corner and news about elected officials, political candidates, and political staffers embarrassing themselves surfacing daily, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to work for a political organization.

Telling someone where I work always requires a risk assessment.

When I accepted my job, I thought my grandparents would finally disown me. (They didn’t.) Not every new person I meet has my grandparents' tolerance for loud and proud people from the opposite end of the political spectrum. This means that before I say where I work, I have to do some analysis: Where did this person say they’re from? Who do we know in common? How ready am I to get in an argument right now?

Living in a left-leaning area (and being almost always ready for an argument), I’m rarely afraid to say where I work. But I have some colleagues who are more comfortable saying what they do than saying who they do it for, and that strikes me as a unique professional problem.

This will go on my resume.

A scroll through my Twitter feed would probably reveal my deeply-held beliefs to any potential employer, but nothing says “I feel strongly about my position on a polarizing issue” more clearly than having it big and bold on my work history. It’s true that I wouldn’t want to work for someone who would hesitate to hire me because of my personal politics, but that’s an opinion formed from the comfort of paid, consistent employment. If I was out of a job and out of money, I might be singing a different tune.

What I put on social media matters. Really.

I’m a strong believer in being yourself on social media, political correctness and professional courtesy be damned. And while I try to fly my freak flag publicly, I do have to ask myself these questions before I post: 1) Could this be believably twisted and reported on by a website out to discredit my employer?; and 2) Could this be held up and read aloud at a legislative hearing by a politician who disagrees with our work?

It’s true that what you say and do online matters to your boss, no matter who they are, but having a large number of empowered activists who oppose my organization’s work with a lot of time on their hands is what has me looking over my shoulder more than ever before—online and offline.

These are all negatives, which don’t accurately reflect my experience at this organization. The unique problems created by working for my nonprofit are outweighed by the unique pleasures. For example, having an office full of like-minded people makes workplace friendships easy. Having motivated political opposition fosters an organizational culture of tight-knit teamwork while attracting a lot of very driven volunteers. (Right now, I’m in the office late, and surrounded by young people making calls to encourage women to vote. It’s beautiful outside, and they’re in here cold calling strangers. For free.) In future interviews when I’m asked if I’m good in high-pressure situations or if I’m skilled at crisis communication, I can truthfully and unequivocally say “yes.” I’m proud of where I work and I’m passionate about what I do, but it’s not always easy. And I’m not sure I’d like it if it was.

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