How to deal with your family who has no idea what nonprofit is or what the heck you do

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Hi everyone. Before we get into this week’s post, I’m thinking of all the families in Houston and other areas of Texas affected by Hurricane Harvey, and of all our nonprofit colleagues who are working tirelessly to provide relief. Please donate. Here’s a list of organizations to give to.

[Image description: A mostly black-and-white photograph of a wide and empty road disappearing into the distance. Above the road there is a text box in black with white writing that says “Disappointment Road.” Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

A couple of weeks ago, my organization graduated the inaugural cohort of leaders from our fellowship program. This is our flagship program, where we recruit a cohort of leaders of color, provide them a living wage, healthcare, and ongoing training, and have them work full-time for two years at grassroots organizations led by communities of color. Of the 14 fellows in our first-ever cohort, 6 got full-time jobs at their host site after their fellowship ended. This is a big deal, since one of the program’s biggest goals is to ensure that leaders of color enter and remain in the nonprofit sector. I was hoping 25% would get jobs at their host sites after their two-year fellowship, but 43% is even better!

As the fellows walked on stage to be thanked effusively by representatives from our partner organizations who hosted them, I recalled the beginning of the fellowship, during the orientation retreat, when the fellows shared their personal stories. It was emotional. Among the things we talked about were the challenges stemming from our own families. Parents who did not understand why anyone would choose to do this work. Scorn from relatives here and abroad. A sense of purpose burdened by the weight of filial guilt.

This is something we joke a lot about in the sector: Our parents and siblings who ask us when we’ll get “real jobs.” I’ve faced it. I’m still facing it. In fact, no one in my family has any idea what I do. And they don’t ask about it. “Vu volunteers a lot,” they say jokingly when someone asks about my job. I know I’m not alone. Colleagues have been sharing stories of reactions from their own families. Here is a sampling of what others have said on NAF’s Facebook page:

“When I was the annual fund manager of [a branch of] Habitat for Humanity, my family thought I built houses and would ask me for construction advice.”

“My family has no idea what I do, even though I have explained in great detail many times (sometimes in English, many times in Korean). Like, straight up, my mom complains to me that she never knows what to say to her friends about what I do.” 

“When I called [my mother] recently, excited that I’d closed a multi-year, 6-figure gift from ‘Big Well Known Bank’ Foundation, her response was….’Cool, do you think you can get a job there? Bankers make a lot of money.’”

“’How can you help others when you can’t help yourself?’ ‘What’s your job? Begging for money?’ Lots of ingrained focus on survival and parallels with distrust of low-income people, even though both parents come from poor families.”

“My parents say social work to everyone in India–it just covers all nonprofit work to them, I think? I was a fundraiser, and the only word in my grandmother’s language for that refers to people who go door to door asking for money, so that’s what she thinks I do. And now that I started working in philanthropy, they’re even more confused. ‘People pay you to give their money away? Americans!’”

“For me it’s less that they don’t understand what I do, but that they don’t understand why I would want to such hard work for so little money […] It still bewilders them that this is what I chose to do instead of going into business, banking or medicine like my cousins.”

“My parents think I ‘moved to NYC to be poor’ which to be fair is just another way of saying ‘am an arts administrator.’”

Of course, every family is different, so it’s not always bad. One colleague says, “They are actually proud of the work I do […] To them I might be ‘different,’ but they also treat me like I am one of the spiritually richest people in my family. If I had just gone corporate with a fancy lifestyle, they would just think I’d turned into a snob who’d forgotten where I came from.”

Still, many of us—especially those of us from immigrant and refugee backgrounds—have to contend with challenges with our own families, in addition to the many challenges we face in general as nonprofit professionals. Besides the misconceptions or complete lack of understanding of what we do, there is also the constant comparisons to others with more “successful” and “prestigious” careers, feelings of guilt for letting our families down or not being able to support them financially, being attacked by the communities we are trying to help, and existential doubts about our place in our families and our worth to our communities. Our jobs are often hard, and not only can we not rely on our families for emotional support, but our families themselves are sources of emotional stress. 

If you experience the above, here are some recommendations:

Understand where your parents and families are coming from. Many of our family members have endured things we can only imagine. Some have lived through the Great Depression, one or more wars, imprisonment, internment camps, harrowing migration journeys, poverty, etc. Their worldviews have been shaped by these events and by other contexts of their cultures and upbringing.

Sit down with your parents and relatives. Learn their stories. Ask them what their concerns are regarding your job. Be curious. Sometimes they may not realize the source of their concerns about your profession. Says a colleague, whose father was worried that her activism would lead to her being killed: “He lived through a war, martial law, suppression of the student movement… In my relative privilege I had never connected his trauma to my activism until that moment.”

Examine the feelings of guilt you may be experiencing: In choosing this path, many of us will feel the guilt of letting down our families. I started college as a pre-med student, aiming for psychiatry, and I dropped it to go into social work. The disappointment from my parents was something that stuck with me my entire career. They had gone through so much—a war, reeducation camp, refugee camp, the giving up on their dreams so we kids could have a future—and the least I could do was become a doctor instead of being so selfish in pursuing this career. It would have made them so happy…

The guilt comes in other forms. A major one involves not being able to support your family financially. Says a colleague, “I can say that the hardest part of working in this space is not being able to financially support or contribute to my family as say my sister has (she’s a CPA). I do what I can to help my parents but I live in the Bay Area and it’s just so expensive. I’m always reminded by my mom of how much I can’t financially help them or treat them. I know she judges me for not having a car […] or she’s been asking me to buy her a car and that’s just unrealistic.”

I wish I could say that this sense of guilt for letting your family down or not pulling your weight can be absolved easily. It can’t. But by examining these feelings, you will have a better sense of control over them. 

Show your family your work, and get them involved when possible: Our work can be nebulous and difficult to explain. Telling your parents and relatives what you do may not be as effective as actually showing them. We have a “take your kid to work” days. Why not “take your skeptical parents and siblings to your program” days? Get them to volunteer to serve hot meals, or to build a house, or to read to kids. Have them meet the people whose lives you’re affecting. Make them feel a part of the community you’re helping to build. Says a colleague, “My Indian family doesn’t acknowledge professions beyond doctor, accountant, or software programmer. My dad asked me ‘when will you get a real job’ until I put him (accountant) on our finance committee. I’ve since switched orgs but he’s still there!”

Of course, it doesn’t always work. One day a few years ago, I decided to invite my father to one of the programs my former organization ran in partnership with a school. It served kids who just arrived to the US. Each Saturday, they came to learn English and math and to feel a sense of community. It took us years to build up this program (which is still going strong). I wanted to show my father the program I helped to create. I was proud of it, and I wanted to show him. He walked around the school, his arms folded, poking his head into the various classrooms where kids were learning. He smiled awkwardly. I waited anxiously for his reaction. “How many kids are here?” he asked. 150, I said. “Hm,” he responded, “seems like there’s room for at least 400.” And that was the last thing he ever said about my program. I was crestfallen. 

Persist at following your path: Many of our families have survived horrific things by their sheer will and determination. So even if they don’t agree with the choices we made, they do tend to respect persistence in the face of obstacles. If you’re going to do this—if you’re going to let down your family here and bring shame to your relatives abroad, as the case may be for some of us—then keep going, and go all the way, and it might just earn you a degree of acceptance if not respect.

It may take years, though. Says a colleague: “After many, many years, with the arts organization that I’d founded to create and distribute my work now flourishing and stable, [my mother] gives me great kudos for ‘having persisted,’ not realizing it was against her wishes that I most had to persist.”

Accept these challenges with our families are part of the dynamics of doing this work: This may sound defeatist, but the lack of understanding or acceptance from our families, and the occasional or pervasive feelings of guilt may just be the price we have to pay to do this work. Sometimes I wish that my relatives would appreciate or even just understand what I do. It hurts more than I am willing to admit, and it certainly irritating, when I go back to Vietnam and they fawn over my older brother, who is a real estate investor who makes a lot of money. “Why don’t you do what your older brother does?” an aunt asked me once, “He helps people while also making a lot of money. You work at an NGO? Such a waste of talent.” Even if I had a better command of the Vietnamese language, how would I explain the work of capacity building for organizations led by communities of color, the need to develop strong leaders of color for the sector, and the importance of getting diverse communities to work together to push for equity and social justice? 

I actually tried it once, with a different aunt who is more worldly (she has a Facebook account!) It required delving into the nonprofit system, boards, philanthropy, the role of government in the US, etc., all unfamiliar concepts. My aunt looked puzzled and tried her best to grasp, but many of these concepts are not things she grew up with, so it was challenging for her to understand. As another colleague said, “There’s a lot of frustration. I sometimes go months without speaking, but at the core, I love my mom and I wish she would understand, but I just gotta recognize where she is coming from and do the hard thing like trying to educate her and have those hard convos.”

And those hard conversations with our families may still lead to nowhere. Many of us will just have to accept that our families will never get it, and we may never get affirmation from them, that many people we care about may actually look down on us, and maybe that’s OK. 

But this work is worth it. For me, watching the representatives of our partner organizations laugh and sometimes cry on stage as they described the work that our fellows did to build their organizations’ capacity, the families they helped, the lives they changed, and knowing that I was a part of making it happen, made it worth all those years of doubt and guilt that I felt for letting my parents and relatives down and the acceptance that I’ll never be considered as successful as my brothers or cousins who earn more money and respect.

If you’re facing all these challenges with your family, and internally within yourself, know that you are not alone. And know that what you’re doing matters, even if your family does not and may never understand or appreciate it.

But maybe it’s not as hopeless as we think. My little sister called me one day. “Vu,” she said, “did you know that Dad has been collecting newspaper clippings of you? Every time you appear in one of the local Vietnamese papers—when you’re doing your weird community stuff—he cuts out the article and shows his friends. He’s been doing this for years.”

He never told me this. Expressions of “I’m proud of you” or even “good job” have never once been uttered by my parents to any of us kids. Now that I’m older, I realize that they hid their compliments in their criticisms, that the way my dad delivers his seemingly-harsh words–his tone, his eyes–is indicative of his intent. “Seems like there’s room for 400” might have just been his way of saying “I’m proud of you.”

And when my aunts and uncle say, “It’s not too late to go to medical school,” maybe that’s just their way of saying, “You inspire us by following your passion to make the world better.” 

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Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organizationRainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.

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  • CCDC ACTION

    Please add Lone Star Legal Aid to the list of organizations to donate to–their office has been destroyed by a fire that was a result of the floods. You can donate to them or to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. http://www.teajf.org/donate/hurricane_harvey_legalaid.aspx
    Legal assistance for low-income people is imperative after a disaster-benefits, getting new IDs, fighting with insurance companies, etc.

    Also, The Portlight Foundation makes sure that people with disabilities are included–sadly many traditional charities do not provide disaster assistance to our folks.
    Thanks
    Julie Reiskin

  • Ophelia Hu

    Goodness, I didn’t know how much I needed to read this today until I started to read. Thanks, Vu. My parents are in many ways the parents you described in this, and the guilt of not being able to provide for them the way their friends’ more financially “successful” children do is tangible in every workday.

    You’re right: we’re not doing this alone, and immigrant parents do tend to respect persistence. That I can do.

    • Rhiannon Orizaga

      I also think (as the child of an immigrant) that our parents just wanted a good life for us, and they are proud of us when they see that we are happy. I’ve been lucky to have a father who doesn’t feel the need to fully understand what I do so long as I can pay my bills and I’m happy.

  • AnnFeeney

    Congratulations on your graduating class! Changing the entire sector is slow work, but getting new leaders ready and connecting is a huge step.

    Thanks for this perspective, too. So many of us in the nonprofit sector come from a background where our families say, “Follow your dream” and “It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re fulfilled by it,” a set of beliefs shaped by a relative sense of security.

  • Maria Ta

    This hit the nail right on the head. I have just recently begun my full-time position at a local theatre dedicated to using art in pursuit of social justice in our community particularly for those in the colored community who are at the front lines. I went from intending to become a lawyer to full-time non-profit work at an arts institution. Talk about disappointment from my parents. I’ve lucked out though with my parents supporting me in all my vary endeavors. While they still don’t fully understand what I do they know I’ve always had a good heart and I have always and will continue to help those around me. I’m glad to hear someone as successful as you Vu has these kinds of struggles because it makes me feel less of an anomaly. Keep on fighting the good fight.

  • Rhiannon Orizaga

    It’s even funnier when you work for a philanthropy-serving organization and everyone thinks you’re heroic for working for a nonprofit until they find out that you’re really helping philanthropists learn how to give their money away. There’s a new level of side-eye for that one.

  • Nonprofit writer

    Thanks Vu, I didn’t even realize that this dynamic was within my family – my parents were both war refugees – and my own feelings of not being good enough.

  • Karen Eggerman

    Congratulations on your success with your graduating class! Thank you for writing about understanding and overcoming parental disappointment. In my experience a lot of that disappointment had to do with my parents fear of economic insecurity (they grew up in the Great Depression). I think that the non-profit sector is actually the potential growth sector for jobs- how do you replace empathy, caring and the need for human contact and hands-on work with a robot? Keep up the great work!

  • Vu, this is a very astute article, and I love the way you illustrate the problem and bring it home to our families and friends. Even though I’m a fundraising consultant, no-one challenges me about my practice, until I say I work with nonprofits. Then, the response is “holy something! Why bother, those guys have no money!” At which point I have to go into the same educational stance you’ve described.

    However, there’s an even larger worry, beyond the frustration of one’s family and friends. And that lies with elected officials, especially those serving at the federal level. Recently I spoke to the CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, a policy organization based in DC. He told me that after years and years of effort, he still encounters the deer-in-the-headlights response from senators (!!!!), congressional representatives (double !!!!!) and their staffs (triple !!!!!) who actually say, “Why are you working like this? Why are you advocating for [more federal funding, more favorable tax regulations, etc etc,]? NONPROFITS ARE ALL VOLUNTEERS, THEY DON’T NEED ANY MONEY!”

    Excuse me, I have to go lie down for a minute and let my blood pressure come down.

    However you manage your family’s lack of understanding or awareness, take notes. Then try the same thing on your elected officials. Believe it or not, the more local those elected officials may be, the more likely they are to understand the value of your efforts. City and county commissioners, mayors, state representatives and governors are more responsive, and less burdened by bureaucracy, than the feds. Your elected officials respond to persistence too.

  • Jennifer Brown Reager

    Thank you for this! Very timely for me.

  • Chrisal Valencia

    Thank you so much for covering this – I honestly didn’t know that the “real job” question was so common and that I wasn’t alone in that struggle. It took my mom quite a few years to understand and when she attended an event and saw me in action, she said, “Oh, this is what you do!” While small, it felt huge to me.

  • Sherrie Smith

    This was really interesting – as a white non-immigrant, I’ve never had to face these pressures. I grew up pretty low-income so the fact that I make a low income now is not something my family judges me for. I have stable, honest work they TRUE they can’t describe but they don’t feel the need to. They just say I work in “Nonprofit” and that’s good enough.
    In reading this article I wonder how much this adds to the challenge of attracting people of color in our industry. Thanks for sharing

  • Heddy Nam

    Thank you for writing this. Completely agree. I’m a Korean immigrant myself and I grew up in a single-parent, working poor household. It took 6-7 years in the non-profit sector before my mom stopped telling me weekly to get a real job, and after 15+ years, the rest of the generation above me still say the same thing. Currently, I’m working on community economic development, workforce development, cradle to career education pipeline, public safety & criminal justice and transit infrastructure in South LA — facilitating a cross-sector coalition of community orgs with government at all levels and branches… at the eye of the storm around how to revitalize neighborhoods long neglected by government and redlined by the private sector without gentrifying and displacing. But some elders in my family still think I hand out sandwiches to homeless people and wish I would go apply my talents elsewhere where I can make a lot of money and donate sandwiches. And you know what? That is okay with me. I have learned over time not to take it personally (even though that doesn’t mean that it’s not hard because I still crave for elders in my family to be proud of my work). The upside has been — this has challenged me to talk about my work in different ways than I would talk about it to colleagues, donors or even directly impacted communities. Exercising that muscle has been good practice for me to land with different audiences. And also helped me with my personal development because I know that not only am I not in this work for money, but I’m also not in it for personal glory such as being admired by my family. That I’m truly passionate about and good at the work I do, and at the end of the day, that in itself is a huge reward that not many people get in their careers. And to exercise daily gratitude for that. Again, not easy and I still wish things were different but has really shaped my personal identity and career. Completely agreed with everything you wrote, thanks for sharing.