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Nonprofit and Human Service Workers

In an age where so much work is meaningless and even destructive, it is a great privilege to be able to earn one's living by helping others and doing good. Moreover, you leave a terrific legacy. Here's the brilliant English novelist George Eliot writing of Dorothea Brooke, the altruistic protagonist of her novel Middlemarch:

Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

A great legacy!

However, there's no doubt that human service (and nonprofit and educational) work, for all its glories, can be tough. Many human service workers are stressed; many are in various stages of burn out. There are two main reasons for that, in my view: time scarcity (and associated problems of overgiving), and resource scarcity.

The time management problem is pretty obvious: a lot of people and causes need help, and yet your time is severely limited. And as budgets shrink, caseloads grow. Let's not forget, moreover, that the work is hard. You are often tasked with helping others heal, grow and evolve - and often have to help them overcome severe barriers. It's not easy work, and it's not simple work - there are a lot of details and interactions - and yet you are frequently expected to do it quickly and with a minimum of "fuss."

Overgiving is a huge issue, and human service workers are prone to it because their clients and causes tend to need a lot of support, and also because they themselves are caring, generous people. It's a noble problem, but still a problem, from a productivity standpoint and others.

Many nonprofit organizations are mired in badly managed so that no one is using their time well. You won't get much support for your own time management efforts (in fact, you'll probably be undermined), and you probably won't get mentored.

Taking it a step further, we find many chaotic work environments. And everyone knows that some nonprofits are run dictatorially, like feudal fiefdoms. Those in particular exert a high price from their employees.

What about resource scarcity? This is also obvious, both on a professional and personal level. Anyone who has worked in the nonprofit realm for a while knows that things have gotten much tighter, financially, over the past few years. Many organizations have shut down, and the remainder are operating very lean. Case loads have increased.

All of the above, combined with low salaries, leads to personal resource scarcity. Nonprofit salaries have always tended to be low, and they seem to be getting worse in the current bad economy. (Increased workload plus lower salary is a bad combination.) And nonprofit workers are particularly hurt with the low salaries because it limits their options for convenient (but often expensive) housing, therapy, vacations and other essential self-care and recuperation needs.

Finally, a human services worker often has to worry about compassion fatigue, a psychological problem in which you experience "second-hand" trauma after interacting with people who have been traumatized. Every human service worker should familiarize themselves with the symptoms, and if you think you might be experiencing it, you should seek help from a specialist.

And here are some solutions for the overgiving and scarcity problems:

1) Remember that, as discussed in my book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific, procrastination and blocks are not due to laziness, lack of commitment, lack of discipline, etc. but disempowerment: you are blocked from using your energy, strengths, skills, etc. The forces mentioned above are the major ones that could disempower you, but there are probably others as well, including some unique to your situation. (Personal problems will naturally also have an effect on your ability to produce.) Uncover, and deal with, the disempowering forces in your life, and you will "magically" regain your energy, commitment, focus, discipline, etc., and your productivity will soar.

2) Do your time management. It's essential.

3) Take case management seriously. I entered nonprofit work with no knowledge of it or even real respect for it - and so my caseload quickly sprawled out of control. Case management is a great tool for keeping your work focused and bounded; learn it from a professional.

4) Don't work in any organization that exploits or abuses you, even for "a good cause."

5) Manage your money. There are plenty of resources on and off the Web related to personal finance. I would strongly recommend the book The Millionaire Next Door, which discusses how people of ordinary means accumulate wealth. A key difference between those who accumulate wealth and those who don't is that the former devote nearly twice as much time to the amount of time they devote to managing their money each week, with Prodigious Accumulators of Wealth (their category) spending around five nearly the amount of time each month managing their finances and investments as Under Accumulator of Wealth (4.6 versus around 27 hours). Yes, I know money management can be boring. In The Seven Secrets of the Prolific I advise you what to do if you find money management boring and/or stressful. Please note that in the below passage the word "investment" refers to a time (not money) investment, and is activity that yields a return in terms of success, happiness or other criteria. Writing, exercise, relationships, and planning are all investments, and so is money management:

Most investments are fun, by the way – and when an investment isn't it's often because we're being perfectionist about it. Many people struggle with money management, for instance (and I was one of them), but approached the right way it is interesting and engaging, and definitely empowering. The solution, when you can't get motivated do something you absolutely must do, is to: (1) work to overcome your perfectionism and internalized oppression around it, using the techniques in this book; (2) go deeper into it, so that it becomes an interesting intellectual challenge instead of a tedious chore you're trying to force yourself through; (3) reframe it as empowerment (which all investments really are); and (4) work in community. Even the least enjoyable investments, such as dealing with a chronic health problem, become much more palatable with these steps.

Despite its stresses, human services, educational and nonprofit work are wonderful vocations.

Remember: procrastination is not laziness, lack of willpower, etc.: it's disempowerment. You're not missing energy, willpower, commitment, etc., but constrained from using what you already have. Remove the barriers - including those mentioned above - and you'll regain your energy, etc., and your productivity will soar.

You'll find detailed solutions to the above conundrums in The 7 Secrets of the Prolific. For fastest progress, try coaching. (Below are what some other social service people are saying.) If you want me to give a workshop for your human services organization click here.


Hillary’s direct, task/goal-oriented, and supportive approach provided me with an invaluable foundation for the development of a more effective job search. I felt more focused and exhilarated while working with Hillary. — Harriet C. (human services worker), Medford, MA

Our conversation last week has given me renewed purpose, focus and direction. — Yvonne S. (nurse), San Francisco, CA

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