Laid Off From a Nonprofit: Me!

A First Person Nonprofit story:

Nearly two months ago, I joined the ranks of laid-off Americans. It almost makes me feel Patriotic, somehow Special, to be counted among the group considered most newsworthy, 24/7. The news is filled with stories about us: How will these laid-off folks manage? How will they afford health coverage? More important to the economy, How Will They Go Shopping?

It's not as if my own layoff came out of left field: for months, like other nonprofits, our health services organization had been suffering from declining donations. Hints of coming changes were everywhere: a sudden rush of closed door meetings at unexpected times, hush-hush conversations in the hallways, cancellation of the holiday party. When orders for 2009 calendars were cut out of the budget as an extravagance, only an ostrich could have seen this as a benign event.

If you sell cars for a living, and people aren't buying your cars any more, then it comes as little surprise when your manager gives you a pink slip. No demand for product, no job, end of story. In nonprofits, the need for services (product) continues, in many cases it expands in bad economic times, yet workers are just as vulnerable to layoff as the car salesperson. "I know I'm needed, but they can't afford me?" It feels unfair to the people we serve, not just to me, somehow.

Notice to me that my job (information and referral for people with a particular disease) was being eliminated immediately was handled in a businesslike, straightforward way. The need for budget cuts was explained to me. A black and white, cut and dried matter.

The first weeks after layoff

The first few weeks after being cut loose from my job can only be characterized as a mad scramble completing tasks on a To Do list from hell: among them, maxing out benefits still on the books through the end of the year: new glasses? Yes, I do need new glasses. Mammogram? Yes, please, I'll take one. Infected tooth? Get it fixed. Prescriptions running out? Fill them ASAP. All this blur of activity happening alongside renewing one's bittersweet acquaintance with Craigslist jobs, filing for Unemployment benefits, wondering how the hell the vaunted COBRA health insurance plan can be afforded, starting January 1. (For my retired partner and I, the cost will be $1450 per month -- my unemployment benefit comes to $1470 per month -- you do the math.)

Entering the world of the Nouveau Poor, clever cost-cutting measures come into play: cancel newspaper subscription, switch to pay-as-you-go cell phone plan, don't use the heater unless it's below 50 degrees, switch Kitty's food from her favorite Friskies to some mystery low-cost brand aptly named Priority -- (she hasn't noticed, yet). What used to be a pretty quick in-and-out at Safeway now becomes a lengthy process comparing prices to the penny. Right now, this cost-cutting is almost something of an interesting, challenging game: ooh, we saved 4 dollars on toilet paper! Way to go, Karen! As the weeks progress, and our savings cushion deflates, I'm sure this game will lose its shiny allure and become just another uncomfortable challenge we face.

One of the biggest challenges of all: with layoff, we've gotten iced out of our work "family." What we forget as nonprofiteers is that although we may consider ourselves teammates -- members of a family -- working together to fulfill the worthy mission of the organization, once staff cutbacks are made, your layoff status removes you in one fell swoop from membership in that family. You're orphaned now, and your only hope is to find a new family, this time hopefully a secure, well-to-do family.

Karen Aitchison has labored 25 years in the vineyards of the California nonprofit sector and looks forward to finding a new position working with seniors, with whom she's found she has a special affinity.

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Comments (17)

  • Thanks for this article. I do think that there is a difference in being laid off as a nonprofit worker and being laid off generally.
    Not only are you dealing with financial issues, the loss of your "family" -- so true! but also the loss of regular access to what -- hopefully -- is also a passion or desire to do meaningful work to help others in the world.
    thanks for this article. As a still employed but worried nonprofit worker, I appreciated your story.

    Feb 01, 2009
  • I too was laid off just before the holiday season.....so I didn't do anything about looking until January. However, since I was in my job for 13 years, my job-hunting skills are a little rusty! Add to that my age - 60 - and the additional 4 million other workers who lost their jobs in the time I wasn't looking.....the competition is bound to be more than I have ever faced before! But I am hopeful, because I know that, at least in the non-profit world, age doesn't usually matter, and experience usually does.
    This article was great.....and a good reminder that there are SO many others in the same position as I, that it actually helps put my woes into perspective.....
    Barbara B

    Feb 02, 2009
  • Karen,
    An excellent article that reminds us all that their are people behind the "numbers" in a layoff. As I talk about in the personal finance column, COBRA insurance can be higher than others. The Foundation for Health Coverage Education has a great website at www.coverageforall.org that provides state-by-state options for insurance.

    Steve Zimmerman

    Feb 03, 2009
  • I enjoyed this...made me feel a little better knowing I'm not alone. My partner and I spent two hours writing grocery lists, searching coupons, figuring out where they double coupons...saving money when we can. It's kind of like a challenge now! Good luck, best wishes to your and yours.

    Feb 03, 2009
  • I agree that there is a difference between being laid off as a nonprofit worker and for profit. However, our sector allows for people to volunteer to stay active in a cause and continue to do meaningful work while searching for the next paid opportuity. ( You certainly couldn't do that if you work in financial services or the automotive field!) I wonder if volutneerism is up since the unemployment rate has increased? Is there reasearch to support this?

    Feb 04, 2009
  • I can tell you from first hand experience as a coordinator of volunteers that I have had more people who were laid off apply for volunteer positions. They are amazingly qualified and quick starters. The bittersweet side of this trend is that I've been losing them as they have found jobs. I've come to accept that people just don't have the luxury right now of deciding to continue working as nonpaid staff, even if they are around the so-called retirement age. But that's okay. More power to 'em!
    Sheryl Luebke
    JFS
    Richmond, VA

    Aug 20, 2009
  • This is a remarkable comment, that people who have been laid off are volunteering. I'm not sure what to think about it. On one hand it seems like it says a lot about your work that people want to keep doing it. On the other hand it's unbearably poignant.

    Aug 20, 2009
  • Thank you for sharing your loss. I am still employed but hanging by a thread.I work with young people. I am a satallite for our corporate office and if my job is eliminated I will not only feel my pain but the loss of not being able to provide to those I have been working with. With your experience I am sure you will prevail!

    Feb 04, 2009
  • Thank you for writing this article. I also was laid off right before the holidays. I completely recognize the mad scramble that you describe! Yet until I took a bit of a breather, I really didn't acknowledge the loss of my "family." I've found some contract work, so have a bit more financial stability than I would have predicted but now know I have to give myself some time to grieve for what I have lost.

    Feb 04, 2009
  • The letters of good wishes are truly heartening to read.  I'm glad I was able to put a face on the job-loss issue that people responded to with such appreciation.  It's also interesting to me that there were more letters than usual from "Anonymous"...this issue is definitely a tricky one to discuss openly, whether one has been laid off, or is waiting anxiously to know what the future holds. 

    Feb 04, 2009
  • Another comment of thanks. I was laid off in a 30% reduction in jobs at our agency in Dec. I was given the choice to leave anytime between two and four weeks (with 4 weeks pay in any case.) The ED and I decided my last day would be Dec. 31. I spent the time working with the ED to eliminate my position and created a transition document that will hopefully help them as the organization shrinks.
    I have heard stories from both sectors about how people are being laid off. The stories span the horrific to the sublime. I believe my closer-to-sublime story was because people were treated with respect, while we all honored the need to protect, or save, the purpose of the organization. We can be fully human at work.
    I did the whole cost cutting thing and got to experience not buying anything for the winter holidays. I stopped all purchases except food, rent and utilities. I have worked out some barter agreements with non-profits whose services I use. And I am finally doing yoga every day from a free web site. Our family entertainment comes from the internet or from arts events where we volunteer. I also started using the library. And, work-a-holic that I have been, I am just hanging out. Spending time with friends and family.
    Last week I found a 80% time job that I think I will enjoy ever so much. It is also 80% less money, so all my newer habits must stay with me.
    I guess a lot of what I experienced was good luck. But I just have to believe that if we know and follow our values and have a strong inner life, then we can get through these times. It may even be a better life than the one we had.
    P.S. The book that inspired me to work on my inner life was Sarah Susanka "The Not So Big Life." (Found in the library.) That may not jibe with you, but even if you cant work on getting money, you can still work on getting more of yourself!

    Feb 05, 2009
  • Dear Karen,
    I won't be anonymous! I, too, lost my job of 23 years due to lack of funding. Good-bye, Mt. Wilson, hello Show Low, AZ! Thankfully, we bought a house here two years ago. Not thankfully, this is a really depressed area. No jobs, unless you want to work at Wal-Mart, Home Depot, or K-Mart--which are starting to look good at this point. We switched from Friskies to Priority, too (for the cats, that is). We use the woodstove as much as possible, shop at Dollar General first, and scan the Internet for coupons. I wish you well, Karen. You've been in my thoughts over the years. Pam Gilman

    Feb 05, 2009
  • I always find it interesting that many nonprofits don't come close to treating their employees the way they claim to treat the clients they serve. I have observed several nonprofits during this difficult economica time really crush members of their "nonprofit family" as they are on the way out the door. Maybe nonprofits leaders are not generally equiped to deal with these types of situations.

    Nov 08, 2009
  • Karen,
    There is a great for profit franchise out there called Home Instead Senior Care and they are located all over the country. They provide in-home non-medical care to seniors. It may not be a non-profit, but the work really feels like it. Being a companion to a senior who may not have anyone is an amazing gift to give. If you have a gift for connecting with seniors, I would highly recommend checking them out. They are always in need of people to become CAREgivers and take care of some really dear people. You can find the corporate site at www.homeinstead.com and find a franchise close to you. I hope that you find something, if you haven't already. Keep your head and your spirits up!

    Dec 01, 2009
  • ouch. that's a painful read but ever so honest.

    Sep 14, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this blog post. I was laid off today from my non-profit where I've helped build a program from ground zero where I have mobilized over 2,000 volunteers for the past year and half. Much like other non-profits, the organization I worked for is facing dire budget constraints. Sadly my entire program was cut.

    It is doubly painful to be laid off from a non-profit job. (1) You're out of a job and (2) the cause that you've been working so hard to advance has now just taken another blow because no one will be there to do your job.

    A sad day but reading this does bring a bit of perspective. It reminds me that I'm not alone. Thank you for that.

    Sep 16, 2010
  • Sorry to hear about your layoff.. and appreciate your telling me that my story helped you in some way. I myself have not landed on my feet yet, but have been supported emotionally in large part by others in the same boat. I wish you the best of luck. Karen Aitchison

    Oct 16, 2010

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