#ProTip: Stop saying you want to give back - Generocity Philly


Aug. 13, 2019 1:12 pm

#ProTip: Stop saying you want to give back

No cookie for you if you utter that line during an interview, says columnist Valerie Johnson. Here's why.

"When you say that you want to work for a nonprofit because you want to give back, you’re telling me that you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into," says columnist Valerie Johnson.

(Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels)

I wrote two columns covering applying and interviewing for new jobs earlier this year after doing some hiring, and there’s one thing that I didn’t address that I really wish I had.

Because some of the people I interviewed recently specifically referenced my columns (good research, candidates!), I’m back again to pass along one more insight for job seekers.

If you are interviewing for a nonprofit position, I strongly recommend that you do not state that you’re looking to work there “because you want to give back.”

First things first: when an interviewer asks you why you want to work there, you have to keep in mind that you’re trying to answer the question while also selling yourself. We want to know the real reason, of course, but we also want to know how your being here will benefit us.

So, telling us all about your deep desire to do good doesn’t tell us anything about your ability to do the job, your passion for our specific mission, or why you care about the services that we do. Especially if your entire answer to that question is “my corporate job is soul-sucking, and I really want to give back.”

Give back to what? For who? How? Where?

Every single time someone’s delivered a variation of that line to me, they pause as if waiting for me to pat them on the back or give them a high five. Saying that you want to give back is one thing, but actually putting in the hard work to give back is quite another. As you will soon find out if you manage to get hired by a nonprofit despite that terribly generic answer.

From our Partners

Those of us that work at nonprofits know that what we do is for the greater good in a way that most corporate jobs aren’t. But we also know a whole lot more about working for a nonprofit than you do. And when you put out blanket statements like that with no insight to the actual work we do, you sound ridiculous.

My term for people like this is shiny. I’ve worked with many a shiny person, who starts out the new job sparkly and bubbly and full of energy and the conviction that they’re going to save the world. This is when I start taking bets on how long it’ll take for the shininess to wear off. It’s never taken more than six months to lose that shine.

Because our jobs are about so much more than giving back. They’re just as stressful, frustrating, overwhelming, and, sometimes, soul-sucking, as for-profit jobs. The work is hard. The pay is low. The hours are long. And the progress is very, very slow.

When a project doesn’t work out at a nonprofit, real human beings are hurt. That grant funding didn’t get renewed? People get laid off. Services are reduced. Your clients don’t receive a much needed service. Sometimes, that leads to dire health consequences, or incarceration, or unemployment.

You’re fighting an uphill battle, every day.

My organization is working to end homelessness, which is a  noble and necessary cause. But we don’t see that needle move overnight. There are many factors that lead to homelessness and we can’t tackle them all at once. We’re continually growing to meet the constant demand for our services — even though ultimately, we want there to be zero demand and to put ourselves out of business.

When you say that you want to work for a nonprofit because you want to give back, you’re telling me that you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. You haven’t done your research on our mission, how our work is affecting the community, and how much further we have to go to accomplish that mission. You expect that you’ll have access to all the same resources you did in for-profit, and you’ll go home every day fulfilled and feeling like you’re saving the world.

In reality, you’ll be stretched thin, you will have knock-offs and hand-me-downs of the tools you’re used to, you’re probably doing the work that two people did in for-profit, and you’ll go home some days wondering what the point of it all is. It’s hard to remember the good you’re doing in the face of so many hurdles.

Now, I know I’m painting a really bleak picture of nonprofits, and that’s not my goal at all. I don’t hate getting up and going to work every day (I actually love it!), we do accomplish things big and small regularly, and we are making progress towards ending homelessness. At the end of the day, we are truly changing the lives of our participants.

But that shiny person, sitting across the table from me, who proudly declares that they’re here because they want to do something with meaning?

They are not communicating to me that they’re a good candidate for this work. All I see is a naive person who will lose that shiny glow, who will take off for something less heavy within a year, and I’ll be right back at the table interviewing new candidates again.


From our Partners

Power moves: Jennifer Lowman is West Philadelphia Alliance for Children’s new executive director

82% of Americans want paid maternity leave — making it as popular as chocolate

Recalibration of power: Building an equitable tech pipeline in Philly


Generocity Philly

Beyond Literacy: Combining nearly 90 years of history into one org


The Food Trust

Director of Finance

Apply Now
Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia Robotics Coalition

Executive Director

Apply Now
Philadelphia, PA or remote


Corporate and Foundation Relations Manager

Apply Now

An advantage of the government’s new payments for families: Not humiliating poor people

Disappearing benefit packages leave workers with chronic economic insecurity

Power moves: Andy Kang named executive director of Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition


Generocity Philly

Inscripción Doble en Congreso: Lo que trae el futuro

Philadelphia, PA

Pathways to Housing PA

Director of Human Resources

Apply Now
174 Diamond St Philadelphia PA 19122


Bilingual Program Coordinator

Apply Now

Poverty Action Fund

Executive Director, Poverty Action Fund

Apply Now

Sign-up for daily news updates from Generocity