I’ve been involved with a number of not-for-profit initiatives and organisations over the years and have had some of the most feel-good experiences of my life in the process. Of late, however, I’ve had to reassess how much time I can actually afford to donate for free, regardless of how worthwhile the cause.

I believe that couch-bound activism isn’t enough and that you have to get off your butt and actually do something in the real world to make a difference. And, no, just being vocal on social media won’t do it, no matter how devastatingly insightful your tweets are.

It’s not simply a matter of selfless, idealistic do-goodery either. For me, part of the motivation is entirely selfish and I’m happy to admit that working for things I believe in and things that are beneficial to others in my community provides me with plenty of egotistic satisfaction. But as I started spending more and more of my work week on various unpaid or under-paid projects (being able to do so is one of the perks of working as a freelance writer), I was eventually forced to consider how sustainable this was in the long run.

“You really have to work out how much of your productive time you can spend on what amounts to a series of very commendable hobbies while also being able to make a living,” my wife Sam pointed out. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be involved in charitable organisations, but if you can’t do so without putting yourself and your family under financial pressure as a result, I think something isn’t quite right”. The voice of reason – as usual.

I’ve sat in plenty of meetings where everyone agreed that just because we were doing non-profit work didn’t mean that we couldn’t pay ourselves a fair salary, but sadly, that remains an unrealistic goal for most groups.

Even larger, more corporate organisations frequently struggle with the money issue. I once worked for a respected and well-established national NGO for two years and watched it disintegrate as its international funding dried up. Job security is as precarious in this sector as it is elsewhere.

In the end I decided to give myself a year to try to cobble together two promising projects that I really care about into one proper, paying job. We did really well, managed to attract some generous funding, produced effective media, organised a number of successful events and more. But ultimately things just didn’t quite work out for me.

The last thing I’d want to do is discourage anyone from getting involved in not-for-profit work, either on a volunteer basis or as a full-time career. If you find a spot that truly works for you and allows you to be active in an area you are passionate about, there can’t be many jobs that are more satisfying. If you really can’t stomach the idea of working in the corporate world, the non-profit arena may offer more attractive alternatives. But you might also want to evaluate the sustainability of your decisions from the perspective of your personal finances.

I suspect that for most of us, our ability to actively pursue unpaid or poorly-paid charitable work changes with our life circumstances. As a young, fairly unencumbered person, you can probably spend a considerable amount of time on passion projects, but once you acquire a family along with the associated economic responsibilities, you may well have to cut back on those commitments.

Personally, I find myself in the latter situation at the moment. While I’ll continue to run one of my non-profit groups (something I can do with little effort from my computer), I’ll only be involved peripherally in some of my other old projects, helping out here and there whenever possible. It may not be something the idealist in me is particularly proud of, but until my situation changes again – which it will – it’s the realistic thing to do.

 

Photo: Enver Rahmanov, Boston 2013  via Wiki Commons. CC by 3.0