Why I Left My Career in Finance for a Nonprofit

Libby Kane

Left My Job In Finance for a NonprofitIn our “Money Mic” series, we hand over the podium to someone with an opinion on a financial topic. These are their opinions, not ours, but we welcome a constructive, thoughtful discussion.

When I was recruited to work for a large corporate bank in New York City after graduating college in 2007, I was ready.

They told me it would be long hours and a lot of pressure, but I knew that I would be able to handle whatever was thrown at me. I would work harder, finish faster and do the best job. I would be my boss’s favorite, and get the accordant raises and promotions.

I planned to focus solely on my career in finance for the next five years, then turn my attention to the family thing. I’d be a superstar. But a few years into my job–when I was crying in the office bathroom and snapping at co-workers–I wasn’t so sure anymore.

What Burnout Looks Like

I’d rather not share my salary, but let’s just say that $200 nights out, shopping binges and spontaneous trips didn’t strain my budget.

For five years, I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at my desk. The 12-hour days weren’t so bad–it was the ones that stretched into 14 hours that got to me. Usually, I was staring at my computer, interrupted only by “fire drills,” when something urgent would come up and we’d run around, validating numbers and getting reports. Every assignment was urgent and mainly focused on how much you could provide for whom and how fast.

I felt guilty when I wasn’t at my desk, so instead of breaking up the day with a walk or a catch-up session with a co-worker, I looked forward to something chocolatey. I gained weight. I wore the same dark outfits every day.

RELATED: Why Women Under 30 Are Burning Out at Work

Despite the competitive, manic environment, my colleagues and I talked openly about our unhappiness (just not in front of our bosses). Most of my co-workers, both men and women, were similarly miserable–and most of them have moved on by now to graduate school, new jobs in the industry, new jobs in the company and others onto sabbaticals.

Everyone hits their breaking point eventually. For me, it took about two years. Feeling like your career is stagnant, like you’re working a lot for no greater good, can pile up on you and quickly spiral out of control.

While working that kind of schedule, the only thing I wanted to do in my free time was sleep or sit on the couch and watch TV. I went through a period where I was drinking too much–and a period where I was bursting into tears around non-work friends.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was burning out.

How Burnout Motivated Me

I knew that I wanted to be “successful,” but I never quantified what that would actually entail. Maybe I still didn’t know–but I did know that this job wasn’t it.

I spent a few months half-heartedly applying to nonprofit jobs online because I wasn’t sure I really wanted to leave. I was privileged enough to have a job that people were lining up for at a time when lots of individuals had no job at all. My friends and family made it sound like it was a no-brainer, saying, ”What’s the big deal? Just quit.” I knew that I had enough saved up to sustain me for about a month and half, but not enough to walk out for good.

Then it was New Year’s, and as I thought about the year to come, I decided I needed to make a change. It was my “put up or shut up moment,” and that lit a fire under me.

  • Jason

    Very inspirational.   Thanks for sharing and confirming that successful means different things for different people. 

  • ranavain

    Yay! I wish more people would make a choice like yours… the non-profit world just can’t compete, in general, on salary, but we still need talent like yours to make the world a better place! 

  • Tiffany

    i too left a job that left me unfulfilled….it takes courage to make the move. on a side note, your line about not saving and hiring a financial planner to help with your budget is interesting to me. i have two good friends with mba’s from top tier colleges that work in finance, and have no idea how to form budgets….it’s a red flag to me about what our system is teaching (or lack of teaching) us on how to manage our finances….

    • Tamara

      Baby, the system doesn’t care about you. It wants you to spend and make sure to give you enough illusion so that you believe you’re free.

  • Ana

    Great story and reminder that success is defined differently for different people. I think a lot of people equate success with making six figures and don’t stop and think about what they really value in life. Good inspiration! 

  • Susan

    This article was such an inspiration! I’m currently in a very stable, very profitable, and very safe job… but I hate it. Bathroom cries? Check. Not feeling myself? Check. I’m working on my outlook so that I too can one day get the hell out of dodge and take a job that actually fulfills me regardless of what my bank account says. Again- thanks for sharing. Really meant a lot!!!! 

  • Carrie B

    Thank you for sharing your story. What you felt in your old job sounds very familiar to what Ive been feeling for too long in my job. You have inspired me to put Find a New Job at the top of my New Years Resolutions!

  • lost in corporate america

    I think a lot of people are starting to realize that life in Corporate America is just not worth it. Sure, you might get a decent salary and good benefits, but for what? So you can spend 12, 14, even 16 hours a day staring at a computer screen in a cramped, ugly cubicle in a gray, ugly, soulless office building? So you can eat all of your (unhealthy) meals at your desk and watch your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol go up? So you can deal with sociopathic bosses and psychotic co-workers who would just as soon stab you in the back as help you succeed, because it’s every worker for themselves in this dog-eat-dog world and “you’ve got to sh*t on them before they sh*t on you”? (Exact quote from my boss, btw.) So you can watch your family/friends/social life die on the vine because once you get home you barely have the energy to shower, veg in front of the TV and go to bed? And just what are you likely to get for all of that blood, sweat and tears that you sacrifice for the company? A pink slip, a box to pack your stuff in, a severance package (if you are lucky), and a security escort out the door to face the wreckage that is your life. Because sooner or later, they are going to decide that your job can be done better by a machine, a younger cheaper worker, or some guy in a 3rd world hellhole that will be thrilled to make $10 a day. And so you and all the hard work you did just don’t matter anymore, and you don’t matter anymore. Because it’s all about padding the profits and making sure the shareholders get their double-digit returns every quarter, so the fatty greedy piggies at the top get even fatter, piggier and greedier. And the rest of us get sh*t on.

    I admit it, I am stuck in a corporate job that I loathe, in a workplace that makes “The Office” look functional. I loathe it so much I take antidepressants and see a counselor once a month (all my insurance will pay for) just so I can get out of bed in the morning. I don’t have a choice. My significant other got hurt on the job, got screwed on his worker’s comp settlement, and now is in the process of retraining for a new career. Until he finds a job in his new field (assuming he can in this craptastic economy) I am stuck because I am the breadwinner and the benefits. As soon as our situation improves, my goal is to either go into business for myself or to find a job in the government or non-profit world. I want to do something that feeds my spirit, that has meaning, or that serves the greater good and makes the world a better place. Instead of working my ass off just to make some greedy, filthy rich a–holes even richer. I know that I am not the only one. When the economy final does recover (assuming it does – I have my doubts) I think corporate America is in for a rude shock. People are tired of being treated like they don’t matter, and unless companies start treating their employees like Human Beings instead of just another “resource” to be used up and thrown away like the toilet paper they wipe their butts with, they will see a mass exodus out their doors, if not worse. And they will deserve everything they get.

  • Amber

    Thank you for sharing your story. I was in the same boat a few years ago, coming home and crying to my husband every night. I love the line that giving up would be staying in a job that you hate. Good for you!

  • Tania

    This was a great article about stopping for a moment and really thinking what is important to us in life.  It is very easy to just keep going with the flow and not thinking about what would happen if we went a different path. That perhaps all that money or other stuff we accumulate just might not be necessary or the key to happiness if we chose a different path.

    That said, I would like to point out a few things as someone who has worked for 20+ years as either a financial controller or consultant for mainly the private sector. I also did a stint for government and the nonprofit sector.  Not all  nonprofits are equal. There are some that are mismanaged with horrible managers/executives too.  Not all jobs for less money and responsibilities mean less hours, craziness or mission impossible tasks (sometimes it just means less money, particulary in a tough job market).  Not all private sector jobs mean 14 hour days like hers did.  Many nonprofit jobs have long hours because of a lack of resources but can also be due to poor management also.

    So, my point is while we re-evaluate our lives and our path, don’t forget to do research when downsizing or changing your job. I think for this person it worked out well but I no longer subscribe to the less money = more life balance fantasy any more (I used to).  It just depends. If it’s a big nonprofit, I prefer those that have an independent board so there is a check and balance (I stay away from situations both as an employee or a contributor where the board is all employees who can be fired by the director if they disagree with something he/she has presented to the board).  I prefer a board with decision making capability rather than merely an advisory board. Ask around discreetly about potential employers, people in the nonprofit arena typically know if there is high turnover or other concerns at their peers. 

  • Jennifer

    When I read this headline, it sounded like my life. I worked for five years in corporate finance. While my hours (or salary) weren’t as extreme, I was terribly unhappy in that environment, and so was everyone else. I had a difficult time resolving that I was working so hard simply to make rich people richer. I’ve now worked in the nonprofit world  for seven years, currently as a fundraiser, and I love it. You couldn’t pay me enough to go back.  

  • Rhythm&shoes

    This is a terrific article about one person’s experience,
    but I would caution readers to understand this as a typical experience. Some
    nonprofits are wonderful, easygoing places like the one the author is placed
    at—many others are just as cutthroat and stressful as working at a major
    corporate bank. There are still deadlines and 14 hour days in nonprofits, but
    the salary is (generally, but not always!) much lower. The idea that working
    for a nonprofit is an easy, stress-free life crazy. I’m pleased that the author
    has been able to find a great work-life balance by making this transition, but
    she really does a disservice to other people in her position by claiming that
    switching to a nonprofit job alleviated all problems. 


  • CrankyFranky

    a common mistake – focus on money (hmmm – who said ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’?) – then finding out it’s not all you hoped and not making you happy.

    like in a class discussion yesterday – Q: if a stranger knocks on your door and says they can save you money, what should you do? – A: close the door – the reality will be they want to Take your money.

    so with income – get the highest paying job so you can have the best life ? hmmm – OK – 14 hour days at the desk, or as a road warrior constantly traveling alone – satisfying wot ?  maybe not.

    we exchange money for time – you want the highest paying jobs ? – sure – we’ll just take – your life.  Wanna life ?  Just give up some of that high income.

    basic principle – spend less than you earn – or learn from Micawber – income $1, expenses 99c, result = happiness – income $1, expenses $1.01, result = misery.

  • http://twitter.com/Lbeemoneytree Lauren Bee

    I was in such a similar place and wish I could articulate the feelings as eloquently as this author. Another great article!!

  • Grace

    Congratulations on breaking out of the golden shackles.  I did the same.  It’s been difficult financially.  But when I imagine myself being back at my old job, I know I made the right decision.  I find that I can live on a lot less money.  I don’t have to eat out a lot, or at all.  I cook more, eat healthier and have lost weight.  I sleep better at night.  On a scale of 0 to 10, my stress level is maybe a 2 compared to off the charts.  I’m my own boss now.  It was nice having a steady paycheck, but that job was sucking all the creativity, joy and life out of me.  We are stronger than we give ourselves credit for sometimes.