Why I stopped working in the Non-Profit Sector

I’ve spent the majority of my life working in the Non-profit sector in one way or another. First as a volunteer and then as an intern and finally working my way up the ranks as a person being paid to do what I love. Which was pretty cool.

Except working in those positions, killed my passion. The higher up the ranks you move, the more you’re privy to, the more you realise that things are not all they seem in the “do good” sector.

Lack of accountability

For one, funds are misappropriated. In my opinion, this is largely due to a lack of accountability without adequate monitoring and feedback to the funders who often just don’t care further than the tax breaks donating money will award them. Staff members who work on the ground are often also paid a pittance while Directors of the company are paid ridiculous amounts.

Goals move to suit the agenda

Another issue I have is hugely over inflated statistics on the actual benefits of programmes where individuals claim an outcome that hasn’t actually occurred in that exact way. Management will adjust the outcomes of programmes so that they seem more beneficial than they actually are.

Lack of ethics

I have also worked for an institution who blindly asked me to change the findings of my research project. When I refused, they simply wrote the report without including my actual analysis even though I had devised the research materials and conducted all interviews and data analysis. When I refused to bend the outcomes, they simply left my name off the report. Yup, shady as it may sound, these things do actually happen.

Untrained and unskilled staff

In almost every NGO that I’ve worked in, the management who run the organisation are often untrained in that particular field or are just individuals who start out intending to do good but often lose sight of what their intentions are and  find themselves lost in the power struggles. They don’t have a grasp of the basic theories of social development. They aren’t trained to understand the importance of bottom up development and asking people what their needs are instead of just informing them of what they will be receiving. Like libraries in townships where individuals need and want toilets more urgently for example.

Draining and exhausting work

To be honest though, the main reason I left working in the NGO sector wasn’t because of bad-management but because it was exhausting and often thankless work. You go in to work day in and day out and you are surrounded by so many people who you are powerless to help that it feels like your efforts are a drop in the ocean and a waste of time.

When you are surrounded by children who don’t eat three solid meals, often don’t even eat one and yet come to school and are expected to learn, your heart breaks. When the children in your classes have no shoes on their feet and it’s the middle of winter, your soul dies a little more. When a 6-year-old child casually tells you that “a gangster shot my daddy and now my daddy is dead” and you have no words to respond, bit by bit, you feel less and less empowered. Less and less like waking up and going back is worth it.

The truth is, I know the work I did changed the lives of many but the sacrifice I was forced to make every day was feeling helpless, depressed, useless and powerless. Empowering people will always be my true love but the older I get, the more I realise that I really am just too soft for this field. You’ve got to be tough. You can’t save everyone, and often, the work you do goes unnoticed. It’s worth it, but it’s tough and the truth is just that this field isn’t for everyone.


**Disclaimer: Of course, this isn’t what it’s like in all non-profits and there are many that do incredible work. This is an account of my personal experience, working in various organisations in the non-profit sector. ** 

If you’ve worked in this field, I’d love to hear your positive experiences too!



  • Cassey
    14th October 2016

    And I’m just coming off of a high of having done a course on programme evaluation. This stuff is scary, although it does highlight the need for M&E.

  • Claire
    14th October 2016

    So on point, Joni! After almost 5 years in the non-profit sector I feel it’s time to move on. As much as helping and empowering people is important to me, that feel-good-feeling doesn’t pay my bills 🙁 It’s been great and a real learning curve, but as you so rightly point out – very few people can stay within the social sector their entire careers.

  • Sula
    14th October 2016

    Thank you, a real eye opener.

    • TyrannyofPink
      14th October 2016

      Thanks Sula <3 It's sad that this is the reality.

  • Chevone
    14th October 2016

    Thanks Jonelle. Few people understand how emotionally and psychologically taxing it is to work within the people focused NPOs. And yes sometimes an NPO reflects the corruption we often see in the government sector, and it reflects tge harshness of ROI for corporates and when, like you say, it’s all about that tax break and great PR without holding the NPO accountable for the service that is meant to be offered; etc.

    The inflated stats, often with no recognition given to the partners from whom these “stats” are sourced from.

    The sector is one that can kill compassion and empathy if you do not guard against becoming “too involved” in the work. Most disturbing is the lack of recognition and ignoring the need of staff to have regular debriefing and emotional support.

    Most of my career has been in the NPO sector with the exception of 5 years in recruitment. I’ve seen it all and accountability at the top is what concerns me most.

    • TyrannyofPink
      14th October 2016

      Chevone, I can’t tell you how glad I am that you commented this. I have been stressing that people are going to think I’m talking rubbish because this is my experience and not a shared one so to see you have the same ideas about how things work and your concerns are the same as mine really brings me peace. I was saddened by my decision to remove myself from what had become a toxic day to day experience for me but it was definitely the right move in the long run. I still consult and freelance in the sector but it’s from my own space rather than as part of any organisations. They are usually so well meaning but as you pointed out, the lack of emotional support, debriefing etc causes long term burn out. I wish there was more being done about accountability. I think it would go a long way in changing things.

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