Are Your Expectations of Animal Nonprofit Work Realistic?

By Paula Fitzsimmons

When you envision working for an animal nonprofit, what comes to mind? A utopian environment where colleagues incessantly exchange niceties? Kumbaya. A workplace where you don’t have to bring on your very best game? Or perhaps you think it’s a place to hang out until “real” work comes along.

If you answered yes to any of these, you’d be mistaken.

While nonprofit work is indeed satisfying, it’s still work – a place where you have to bring your very best skills & attitude to the table. Then some.

It’s impossible for anyone to know the dynamics of every single organization. Even checking review sites such as Glassdoor or talking to current employees can only offer a glimpse into how a particular nonprofit operates. That said, the following is a composite, based on my own observations. Organizations and their dynamics vary.


Nonprofits are similar to businesses

You’ll have a better chance at acing interviews and succeeding in your position if you adjust your mindset, and understand that a nonprofit functions much like a business. Minus the profits, bonuses, and profit sharing, of course.

Your group’s mission may be different than that of a business – working to sustain humane conditions for animals versus creating and distributing a product, for instance.

But there are similarities. Whether it’s a small animal sanctuary or a national welfare organization, nonprofits are accountable to a board of directors, need to create revenue, watch costs, be concerned with liability, and maintain a mission statement. Just like for-profit businesses do.


You’ll still have to deal with office politics

As a general rule animal welfare people are kind and passionate – and they get into this line of work to make a difference.

Yet the reality is that people are still . . .well, people. We each have our quirks and personality traits that don’t resonate with everyone. Managers aren’t infallible. Egos get in the way. Tensions can flare.

These behaviors don’t necessarily stop because the organization happens to be a nonprofit.


You’ll work your butt off

Slouches need not apply. You’ll likely be working as hard as – or harder than – you would in a similar position for a business. And chances are you’ll be earning less for your efforts.

Work is work, whether you’re doing it for a corporation or a nonprofit.


Stop animal cruelty paw print
You’ll be prone to burnout

Burnout can happen anywhere, in any position, and in any company. But there are differences.

When you put in 60-plus hours to make a sale or secure a deal, that’s most definitely a disappointment – and may even be a career setback. But when a nonprofit’s campaign fails, they don’t get the funding they were counting on, or an animal-friendly bill doesn’t get passed, animals are negatively impacted.

There’s more passion and emotion involved in animal protection work. You’ll see and be privy to unfortunate tales of animal cruelty and neglect, and as a result will be more prone to compassion fatigue. Fortunately, organizations like Animal Sheltering and ASPCA Professional exist to help animal welfare workers learn to cope. If you choose animal rescue as a career path, I suggest hooking up with these organizations.


You’ll have to deal with criticism – including the nasty variety

Nobody likes criticism, but it’s especially hard when you’re a sensitive animal-loving soul. Yet the reality is that in the fast-paced, headline-heavy world inherent in today’s media, perceptions are made quickly – and they can be unfair. People often don’t take the time to read (props to you if you’ve gotten this far) or get the facts before criticizing an organization. I’ve seen some nonprofits get pounded mercilessly . . . for something they didn’t even do.

You can’t please everyone, including people within your own circles – some of whom may (very mistakenly) not equate animal work with “real” work; or who may question why you’re working with an animal cause instead of a human one.


As an employee of a nonprofit you get to do meaningful, life-saving work and meet like-minded and compassionate people. As sweet as the rewards of nonprofit work can be, it’s also important to understand the potential obstacles. Walking into a situation with blinders off will help you be better prepared for whatever may arise.

If you’ve worked (or work) for an animal nonprofit, what have your own experiences been like?


  1. Hi Paula,

    Great article and as pointed out, politics are a big part of animal rescue — sometimes at the expense of the animals. It is understood that organizations are under a lot of pressure from the donors to the public to save lives but when greed comes in at the expense of saving lives, it gets even uglier. I saw a cat put up for adoption with a hefty price tag because he had ‘papers’. That created such heartburn because it went against everything the rescue organization’s mission stood for AND the cat sat in the shelter for months even as the price lowered. Those were months that other cats were being killed because of no space. Finally the cat was adopted at a much lower price tag but that shelter was penny wise and dollar foolish because that one action not only costs them more in the long run to house, feed and care for the animal but also lost volunteers and donors (word of mouth goes a long way with donors).

    I am not suggested that shelters don’t get hammered for their actions when the public doesn’t know the details but in this case it was internal and yet there was zero communication or logic provided to the volunteer staff. That one action could have opened a discussion but it never happened and so the shelter and ultimately the animals lost.

    It never ceases to amaze me just how big egos get especially if someone doesn’t agree but instead of opening dialog, it was more of a – this is my way or the highway. Management is under pressure to produce but they sometimes forget that we are all on the same team working for the same goals and many of the volunteers have full time jobs but still donate their time. Finding that balance to keep donors, volunteers, staff, animals and all other stakeholders happy is a challenge.

  2. Animal Jobs Digest |

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for reaching out – I’m glad you liked the article.

    And well stated.

    It’s unfortunate when an organization’s eagerness to make a little more in funding ends up costing more in the end . . . and even more unfortunate when animal lives are impacted.

    I know times are tough for many organizations, especially the smaller ones. But I believe little good comes when an organization strays from its mission. As you pointed out, word gets around.

    Please continue to comment. : )

    All the best.

    –Paula Fitzsimmons

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