Walking Away

Leaving the Perfect Job – The Second Time

Last week, I wrote about the first time that I left the perfect job. At the time, I left one perfect job for another one, to serve as Associate Director for InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network. I began working for an organization that I loved, on a cause that I personally believed in, using skills that I both had and enjoyed using. On top of all that, I regularly met fascinating people – for an overly curious generalist like myself, getting to ask academics about their research on a daily basis was like heaven – and got to work with a fantastic team. What could possibly go wrong?

The problem: the position required me to raise the funding for my salary and expenses.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s no problem with fundraising. It’s an important part of nonprofit work, and raising funds from a broad base of support provides stability and demonstrates that people other than the founders believe in the mission. In a ministry context, personal support raising also serves as a test, not only to see whether the mission is worth supporting, but whether the specific individual is the right fit for that mission.[1]

For me, however, fundraising was a constant struggle. I had some success – one year, I raised over $50,000 – but that success was overshadowed by the even larger amount needed to meet my budget — usually $70,000 to $90,000. My supervisors came up with generous and creative ways to supplement my fundraising efforts – matching grants, bridge grants, part time and short term positions that provided additional funding. In the end, though, none of it was quite enough.

The Signs I Needed to Leave

It was an extremely difficult decision – giving up my perfect job over just one part of the job description. Nonetheless, I eventually came to see that it was the right thing to do, for several reasons.

The emotional roller coaster for both me and my wife. Both the process of fundraising itself and the constant strain of being behind on my budget were extremely stressful for me. Further, my inability to raise my full budget meant no budget increases for several years, which in turn meant no salary increases for several years. This led to financial stress for our household, in addition to the professional financial stress. I imagine that it would be similar to trying to keep a failing business afloat, with both personal and professional finances at risk.

The critical role of fundraising to the work. Though the fundraising was the only one part of my job description, it was the fuel that powered the rest of my work. Fundraising enabled me to write, research, build new programs, and serve students and faculty. If my fundraising had been adequate, or if the work had been structured in a fundamentally different way, then I would have been able to accomplish a great deal more that I did. As it happened, my fundraising problems held back the program. In any kind of work, there are certain skills that are critical and necessary. For what I was doing, fundraising was one of those critical, necessary skills. Even though I possessed several other necessary skills, those strengths didn’t make up for this huge weakness.

A desire to work with my strengths, rather than against my weaknessses. As I learned more about myself (more on that in a minute), I realized that I had many strengths, including combinations of certain traits that were, in fact, fairly rare and potentially valuable in the marketplace. Fundraising, however, was not one of them.[2] I gradually realized that much of the emotional stress and disappointment I felt came from constantly butting up against the weakest parts of my vocational makeup.

How I Tried to Fix It

I didn’t leave without a fight, though.

I learned more about myself and addressed my internal issues. I met several times with a vocational coach (the wonderful Nancy Parsley), who helped me understand my vocational strengths and weaknesses. She was the one who introduced me to the Strong Interest Inventory, which completely transformed how I viewed my problems with fundraising. My struggles weren’t the result of a lack of determination or discipline or know-how, but a product of the unique way I was wired. In fact, I came to see that, even though I couldn’t raise money as well as some of my colleagues, I was able to accomplish certain other things that had eluded them for years, such as launching an online publication and building a basic curriculum for students considering graduate school. I also began seeing a counselor to help me sort through the emotions I had been struggling with related to fundraising and my struggles with my work.

I worked to improve my skills where they were lacking. The director of InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries, Bobby Gross, matched me with a terrific fundraising coach, Joe Moore, who helped me gain a fresh perspective on my worth as an individual[3] and the process of fundraising. Because my original fundraising instructor had been so gifted[4], there were some basics that I had missed out on. Joe helped me a great deal, and I made measurable progress, which in turn helped my emotional life.

I tried to changing my job description to better fit my strengths. Finally, with help from my supervisors, I sought ways to change my job so that fundraising wasn’t as critical to my success. I reduced my hours as ESN Associate Director and replaced them with a (fully funded) part time role working with our department’s websites. I highly recommend trying something like this whenever you work for a company or nonprofit that you love yet struggle in your current position. In this case, it partly worked: I gained another year with InterVarsity, while also gaining experience that would later prove extremely valuable in my current position in web development. It only partly worked, though, because my attention to the work of ESN was diluted as a result of my split priorities.

So, at the end of 2011, I stepped down from my role as Associate Director. InterVarsity offered me a continuing part time position as a writer and researcher, which I accepted. Many of my donors continued to support this new role – which, ironically, soon resulted in my budget being in the black for the first time since I started working for InterVarsity. Though the process of leaving was difficult, I learned a great deal about myself, especially my strengths and weaknesses, that continue to inform my understanding of work. Even though the next stage of my career turned out to be a poor fit (more on that another time), I left InterVarsity on good terms with a sense that my time there had been well spent.

Photo credit: DieselDemon via Flickr

  1. See my friend Jeff Gissing’s post on Why I Raise Support for some additional benefits of support raising.  ↩
  2. When I took the Strong Interest Inventory, my Holland Code that relates to fundraising – Enterprising – just about bottomed out.  ↩
  3. One of the benefits of working for a religious organization is that many of your colleagues are trained spritual advisors. Joe served me as much as a chaplain as he did a fundraising coach.  ↩
  4. His Enterprising score is probably off the charts.  ↩

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