9 Ways to Explain Your Nonprofit Job to Your Family this Holiday Season

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It’s that wonderful time of the year when young adults prepare to have public judgment of their life and career decisions become a major topic of conversation among a large group of people they barely know (i.e. their extended family).

So, if you’re a budding medical doctor, congratulations!  You have a commonly known, widely socially accepted and financially lucrative career path and can stop reading now.

On the other hand, if you make less money than some of your friends in food service, working at an organization no one has ever heard of, for a cause that’s too political to be seen as polite dinner conversation in the first place, here’s a helpful guide to help you navigate the awkward conversation.

 

1. “This will look great on my grad school application!”

Many of the olds are under the impression that getting a graduate degree is a smart economic choice.  Whether you’re really planning on it or not, allow your family members to believe you’re going to grad school.  This will keep a glimmer of hope alive in their mind that whatever it is you’re doing now is only a temporary transitional phase.  If there’s anything we learned as teenagers, it’s that the only reason any sane person would actually care about helping their community is to accumulate feel-good credentials to use on their college applications.

2. The bait and switch

Sure, some of your college friends working in the private sector may be making 2-5 times as much money as you, but you’ve got a solid job and that’s more than a lot of people can say.  This tactic taps into the fundamental emotion behind your family’s scrutiny: Fear.  Here’s how it works.  First, when asked about your life, explain how you’re living in a tent in Zuccotti Park or are taking a brief holiday break from chaining yourself to ancient redwoods.  After the horrified backlash, tell them actually you have a job with a nonprofit organization.  In comparison, it’ll sound like investment banking.

3. Start a political argument

Say you’ve got conservative family members who even if they could understand the mechanics of what you do at this “job” of yours, would be deeply morally opposed to it.  Now I know nobody likes to argue politics with their family.  But if you distract them with some sweeping abstract debate about immigration, LGBT rights, Obamacare, etc. you can totally avoid having a specific conversation about yourself and your job.

4. The Obama

On the other hand, say you’ve got a progressive family who is down with the overall idea of someone out there saving the world, they just would prefer you to be doing something a little more… professional.  Most people know Barack Obama did some fluffy nonprofit thing in his youth.  And being the president of the United States is about as professional as you get.  This one works kind of like the grad school tactic, but instead of advanced education, you tell them how your current job is preparing you to run for public office.  Your grandma will get at least a few years of bragging to her friends before she catches on to your bullshit.

5. The straight up lie

Many of the family members you see during the holidays are people you only see once or twice a year anyway.  Would it really be so bad if they were under the not-exactly-true impression you were working for Google?  Prepare by watching The Internship so you have some (possibly exaggerated) details to casually mention in conversation about what it’s like to work for Google.  Important: If there are closer family members that actually know what you do, make sure they’re in on the lie so they don’t blow your cover.

6. Get them to understand how miserable being a doctor or lawyer is

This one requires some advance planning.  In the months leading up to the holidays, talk to all your friends in med school or law school or in their first couple years of work in one of those highly respected professions.  Slowly gather horror stories of cutthroat classmates, rampant adderall abuse, 80+ hour workweeks.  To top it off, bring a practice LSAT test and get your family to take it together instead of playing Apples to Apples after dinner.  Works like a charm.

7. “When the revolution comes, no one will be poor!”

Sure, maybe your working-class family is upset that they went deep into debt to allow you to be the first generation to go to college and by being too idealistic you threw away your one shot to provide financial security for you and your family.  Assure them that the imminent Marxist revolution, which you’re a key player in, will eliminate the class structure.  Once the means of production are seized from the bourgeoisie, no one will be poor, including you!  They’ll totally understand where you’re coming from.

8. Crocodile tears

During the holidays, people get pretty emotional and generally give a shit about other people more than they otherwise would.  So when your family pops the question about your work, stare deep into the distance, fake a sniffle or two, and say, “You know, during Christmas I just think about how many children out there don’t have much to be happy about right now…”  After trailing off, give a serene gaze around the table straight into their eyes and say with finality: “And then I remember why I do the work I do.”  Okay, so say your nonprofit isn’t anything about children or poverty.  This can easily be adapted to just about anything.  Work in environmental sustainability? “You know, during Christmas I just think about how many white Christmases we really have left before Santa’s workshop will be submerged under the melting icecaps…”

  1. The long way

Alright, so maybe you actually care if your loved ones understand the work that you pour your heart and soul into and want them to support and appreciate what you’re doing with your life.  In that case, it might be a little harder.  Most regular folks don’t have any experience with organizations like the one you work for.  Many of our families have education, language, or cultural barriers that make it difficult for them to grasp terminology like “I do development and strategic communications for a social justice organization”.  Our loved ones are often in the midst of a difficult process of developing their consciousness about complex issues like poverty or sexuality or race, and hold conflicting worldviews that they’re trying to reconcile with one another.

First off, no matter what, your family cares about you, and their concern is ultimately motivated by wanting you to be happy, even if they have a poor understanding of what really brings you happiness.  Before explaining anything complicated or technical, tell them how much you love the work you do, how happy it makes you and how meaningful it is to you.

They may never understand the details of most of your day-to-day work, but they will understand stories.  Share with them an anecdote about a person whose life has been touched by your organization and how they’ve changed as a result.  Give them an example of an issue you work on—the problem and its root cause, the long-term vision of the solution, and the small things you’re doing right now to get there.  Tell them the story of your favorite day at work and why it deepened your conviction to do what you do.

Get them to see that this isn’t just a short-term phase by talking about supervisors and mentors you have at work who are a few years further along in their career than you are and the ways you want to develop your skills to reach their level.

Assure them that you’re still growing and being intellectually challenged by bringing up some of the big things you’ve learned through your work.  Give an example of how you’ve applied on the ground the knowledge you gained during the education that they supported you through.

Then when you feel like they’re beginning to get it, turn the conversation to their work.  Ask them how their job is going, what their career goals and dreams are.  Show them the same genuine empathy and respect that you expect from them.  Love them for how different they are from you on the surface and maybe recognize that at a deeper level your values are more similar than you think.

Happy holidays and keep doing what you do.

5 comments

  1. captcrisis

    Wonderful!

    The truth, and the only real answer, of course, is no. 9. It did work with my conservative, working-class family.

  2. Carla Escoda

    The problem starts with the label: NONprofit. Such a downer. It unfairly tars not just tree-huggers and activists but the legions of artists (excluding Lady Gaga, Madonna, Elton John and Marina Abramovic) who make the world a better place yet cannot earn a living wage. All these important, life-affirming jobs in industries defined by the ABSENCE of something, by the nonexistence of a measure of value. The greater challenge lies not in convincing one’s family that one is doing meaningful work, but convincing society and governments that art is a public good, as critical as national defense.

  3. Pingback: 9 Ways to Explain Your Nonprofit Job to Your Family this Holiday … | Krios Consulting

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