7 Keys to Achieving Career Happiness in a Nonprofit Job

Sometimes, I come home from the work day completely depleted. And other days, I come home full of energy and creative inspiration. But if I work in a sector that is dedicated to making a positive community impact, then why the discrepancy? Shouldn’t every day feel like I’m making a difference?

That would be a nice, but sometimes the tasks that need to be accomplished are work, and they give me no internal satisfaction. When I started working in the nonprofit sector in 2008, I didn’t know what a nonprofit was much less that I would spend most of my career in its realm.

But over the course of that career, I acknowledged that the organizations whose missions and visions attracted me most were among the nonprofit sector. But that doesn’t mean every job has been 100 percent satisfying or that every career move has been the most rewarding.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve found that it’s easy to burn out when you’re involved in the work to make a difference, and you no longer see that difference. It’s easy to get distracted by the bottom line rather than focus on the big picture. It’s also just as frustrating to see your former colleagues and friends rise to a higher level in the for-profit world and wonder if it’s your sector that’s holding you back.

Are you undervalued? Are you underpaid? Did you make all the wrong choices in your career?

These are valid questions. But for me, it comes down to whether I am internally happy and satisfied with the work I am doing. If I am not satisfied with how I am spending 50+ hours of my week (this includes my DC commute), then my whole life is off kilter, and something needs to change. So, how do I change my circumstances? How do I prevent burnout? And how do I know when certain elements are outside of my control, and it’s time for a career move?

Here are seven keys to internal happiness that I’ve learned while working in the nonprofit sector.

1. Keep Learning. 

I once had a supervisor tell me that if I ever found myself bored 24/7, then it was time to find a new job. I live by this philosophy. I feel alive when I am learning something new whether that be the nuts and bolts of health care policy or how to execute a communications strategy. I need to be using my brain. 

Another colleague once asked me if I had a professional development budget through my job, and I had no idea. Take advantage of professional development opportunities. Ask about your budget. I use professional development for my own growth. Your organization is investing in you, for sure, but don’t forget to invest in yourself.

2. Advocate for yourself.

As a woman, this is especially true and difficult. I have worked in female-dominated industries, and I have also worked in male-dominated industries. Be aware of office politics, but stay true to yourself. Whenever I had a concern or an idea, I spoke up. Maybe I didn’t always speak up to my supervisor? Maybe I garnered support through colleagues or set up a one-on-one meeting with someone from the executive leadership team?

There are various ways to let your ideas be heard. And if all else fails, and no one seems to listen to what you want to say, then it might be time to move on. If leaders aren’t listening to your voice, then they’re not going to see what you do.

It’s okay to stay quiet, too. As an individual often dubbed as the “quiet one,” I know this game too well. But I’ve learned it is the quiet one employers don’t expect to hear from, so when I do speak, I find I have more ears than I anticipated. I can’t deny I haven’t used this to my advantage. Just like in school, I knew if I raised my hand, the teacher would always call on me because they never heard from me. So, I learned to be strategic about when spoke up.

3. Take time off. Get some fresh air. Stop reading the news.

This is so fundamental to my everyday happiness. In fact, when the weather is particularly bad for days on end, I become a lot more irritable at work because I cannot take my daily lunchtime walks. I don’t believe a vacation will solve everything, but when it comes to preventing burnout, it’s essential.

This past year has been stressful personally and professionally. So, while I wasn’t planning to take a vacation because I don’t have much time off, I decided it was detrimental to my health to rent a cabin in the mountains for a week and completely unplug. It also gives me something to look forward to when the days are tense.

Don’t forget to take a break from the news. I’ve spent the past four years working in health care. Sometimes, for my own sanity, I choose to turn it off.

4. Meet your community. Meet your members. Experience on-the-ground impact.

Want to know where your work is making the greatest impact? Meet with your community. Meet your members. This is why I love volunteering. So, why shouldn’t that same gratification work for my job? Just last month, I attended a regional training I had spent the better part of the year promoting. I’d never seen the training up close. Not only did it give me some marketing ideas, but it allowed me to connect with those I had been trying to reach. It gave me the opportunity to see how these individuals were using the training to improve public health and quality-of-life. That kind of impact is priceless.

5. Make a friend. Be social. Don’t be social. Do what works best for you.

My work day is always better when I have a friend I can share frustrations and successes with. I have met some of my best friends through my job. And I have also met people I thought could be friends and then turned out to be just colleagues. That’s okay, too. I like having a separate personal life from my professional one. This is especially important for those days when work is incredibly stressful, and I can separate myself from it once I leave the building.

6. Start your day for yourself. Start the work day with your most mentally challenging task.

I’m naturally not an optimistic person, but I try to start my day in a positive head space by giving those first 15 minutes to myself. This can range from stretching, meditation, writing, working out or even sleeping a little bit more. Starting the day for myself gives me the energy boost I need to be there for the world.

Other days, this translates into how I start my work day. Since I love learning, and I thrive in a workplace where I can use my brain (who doesn’t, really?), it seems logical that I would then start my day in the best way possible – with mental energy. I try to start each day with my most mentally challenging task whether that be a presentation on marketing efforts, a communications plan that will raise the profile of an initiative nationwide, or an article that speaks to the importance of resilience in recovery. The morning is when my mind is at its sharpest, and over time, I’ve learned that this sharpness will not last the entirety of the day so I try to make the most of it while I have it.

7. Keep Laughing.

We all have bad days. It’s inevitable. Sometimes, it’s because I’m not feeling well. Other times, it’s because of things that are outside of my control. So, for those days, I created a folder on my work computer that I can access whenever I need a laugh. I have videos, memes, articles, websites, and even reminders of laughable moments that colleagues and friends have shared. It’s the little jokes that get you through the tough times.

When I started my current job back in January, the organization was going through a difficult transition time (as I believe many organizations do when a new administration arrives). My colleague and I started collecting stuffed animals and showcasing them on the cabinet in between our office spaces. We call it our “zoo,” and every time we come into the office and see that “zoo” of koalas, frogs, horses, ducks, and other unexpected creatures, we smile.

It’s a funny sight to behold, for sure, but it gives us a sense of belonging.  


Tracy Gnadinger is a jill of all trades. She’s worked in program evaluation, communications, health policy and publishing, but her real passion is peanut butter. She is currently in the midst of a divorce with Type 1 diabetes and blogs about her experiences at https://sugarcoatediabetes.com/.   

Twitter: @TracyGnadinger; Instagram: gnadinger