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  • Writer's pictureJama Ross

The Second "Family" of Work in Nonprofit (From the Desk of the Executive Director.)

“Our workplace is like a family,” is a message I’ve heard a sickening number of times throughout my career, usually regurgitated by organizations that held these accuracies most if your family happened to be dysfunctional, stressful and damaging.

It is estimated that our overburdened American workforce will spend a third of life with these “families,” equating to an average of 90,000 hours of your life in your second “home.” (Column coming soon about the fact that so many countries with shorter working hours have greater productivity, economic prosperity, quality of life and life expectancy. For now, I have a path to share.)

“Workhorse” was always a title I wore with pride. I knew that, while it was unhealthy to have so much of my identity wrapped up in my job, it was an understandable quality perhaps when it was connected with charitable work. Admirable, even.

Like most servants of nonprofit, I sacrificed, rescheduled, overbooked and prioritized everything behind the mission I was placed at the helm of. I believe part of this was due to the social constructs of my gender; while it is assumed that a man is qualified for a job, a woman must continually prove that she’s worthy of it.

However, most of the fault is my own. In wanting to make myself irreplaceable, so tightly woven into the fabric of an operation that it would struggle to run without me, I set a very dangerous precedent that others were soon only too willing to exploit.

My presence at my son’s eighth grade graduation was viewing Facetime while I held my phone to my ear in the back of a huge conference room where my job had assigned me to be the face of the organization. “We need you there, Jama. No one can explain to donors why they need to give to our mission like you do.”

I had given birth to my twin daughters in what I can now recall as a very traumatic and high-stress delivery, yet the next day I was clicking away at my laptop with the IV still pumping in pain drugs to alleviate the aftereffects of my C-section. “Take time for yourself,” I was told, “But … if you could just send a few emails? Just a few things … .”

When a dear friend died of brain cancer, her funeral was the morning of our huge fundraiser. I wasn’t in any kind of headspace to be present at a work function, let alone running the operation. I watched them close her casket for the final time, choked back my tears and rushed to the bathroom to change into a formal gown. “You’re the heart of this event, Jama. Just get through the day for us, then focus on healing.”

Then there was the horrible time my toddler was at an event and accidentally grabbed a hot curling iron backstage. My dad brought her beautiful, tear-streaked cherub face to me, the angry and welted hand outstretched as she reached for me. I held her face to mine, clenching my eyes shut as I knew that pain must have been radiating through her.

I was emceeing; I was expected to walk out in front of 350 people moments from now — and I knew what that meant. “You’re the face of our mission; we can’t replace you for this.”

I bit down hard on my lip, feeling my soul shatter as I shoved her back toward my father’s arms and told him to take her to the emergency room. I watched him retreat with her sobbing on his shoulder, wanting nothing more than to be the one to walk out that door with her. Sixty seconds later, I was beaming in the spotlight and demanding an audience give their all to our community, my battered heart pumping with self-loathing and obligation.

It pains me to remember these times; the human toll took much more than just myself in the deal I made for what I thought was so noble and righteous. I am shamed for the memories I can never recover, that I was also the most insistent debt collector of these things that were far too high of a price to forfeit.

I began to grow bitter, in a state of exhaustion as I constantly tried to overcompensate for the times I missed. I suffered several medical setbacks, including a grand mal seizure when I bit off part of my tongue as I convulsed on my office floor. “Stress” was ruled the cause. “You should take some time,” work told me. “But … you were the one who wanted to launch this new program … .”

I was trapped in an all-consuming prison I had created, with myself as the most stringent warden. I didn’t know how to break free from the work, the pressure, the need to please and the needs of the community, and, of course, the extreme expectations I demanded from myself thanks to a hint of a self-induced God complex.

The story of how I broke this chain isn’t my focus here; it took immense reprogramming, boundaries, forgiveness, and grace for myself. And, truthfully, I’m still a work in progress on this. But I realized how easy it is to fall victim to it again.

A few weeks ago, I was having coffee with the founder of our organization, my mentor, and I mentioned that I had some vacation time I was taking in July. “Oh really?” he mused. “When?”

Suddenly, I felt that familiar twinge of anxiety as I realized I was about to tell him that I was taking it so close to a big fundraising event we had planned. “Um ... it’s in July. It’s actually pretty close to the golf outing.” I kept my eyes cast downward and slowly sipped, hoping the subject would just dissolve away.

He looked at me, thoughtfully. “What are the dates?”

Oh, God, I panicked. He doesn’t think I should be going so close; he doesn’t think I can do my job effectively.

Taking this job had been the greatest step of my new life with boundaries, with respect for my family and personal health. Everyone here had been beyond accommodating, but I suddenly fell back in time to that servant who needed to prove and please as I thought madly, “I can’t have them doubt me. I have to fix this.”

I told him the dates and assured him that I could work remotely the entire time. I would work extra hours, double if needed, before my departure.

“Have you made your travel arrangements yet?” He asked in the elevator as we headed back toward the office.

“No,” I rushed on. “So I could always change the dates. It’s my son’s 21st birthday to New Orleans, but I’m sure we can rearrange if the board has any reservations ...”

He put a hand up as we walked over to his receptionist. “Please make the flight arrangements for Jama’s family on these dates,” he said to her. “She’s taking a vacation with her son to New Orleans, and we want to make sure she enjoys it.”

I blinked once, twice. My eyes filled with tears as I tried and failed not to cry. I was suddenly aware of the message I had always needed to receive, but had been so off the mark in my path to retrieve it.

“We want you to be happy BECAUSE no one can convey our message like you.”

“We want you to care for yourself BECAUSE we can’t replace you for this.”

“Take the time for you BECAUSE you do this for us.”

Maybe they understood that when I had more rest, I had more energy to fight harder for our mission. Perhaps they recognized that the greater consideration I was given, the harder I would work to achieve the goals we set. And I’m sure they knew that the care cast upon me would be reciprocated tenfold.

But more importantly, they realized that these are the stipends that every person deserves not only as an employee, but as a member of humanity as we exist not just to work, but truly to live this beautiful yet so quickly concluded life.

Our obligations to one another are beyond simply demanding of another’s time, blood, energy and production. We have also the duty to one another of joy, tranquility, compassion and the grace that comes from the truest form of those who care as a “family.”

To quote Ram Dass as the end of his life drew near, “Let’s all walk each other home.”

My mentor patted me on the shoulder and headed back to work as I headed off to start my own work day, grateful for the missions ahead, for a newfound understanding of grace, and for the many paths that had finally brought me here and led me home.

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