“Look at the size of that house. That’s disgusting.” Ralph remarked. We were out in the wilderness on a day-long work retreat, and happened to be looking up at an expansive riverside property. It was lofty and beautiful, with the typical air of vacancy that distinguished lived-in homes from ‘vacation homes’ – darkened windows, boarded up garage, lawn noticeably devoid of the strewn-about water toys that decorated neighboring properties. Whoever owned the place certainly had enough money to reside elsewhere. The same day, Ralph tossed around a term I’d never heard before: “golden handcuffs.” It referred to the perks of a big paycheck that make it hard to give up corporate life for the nonprofit sector. Ralph had grounds to talk – he left a bigwig law firm over a decade ago to co-found Crag Law Center, the environmental nonprofit where I was interning. The move was a pay grade reduction, the trade-off for a job that allowed Ralph pursue what he thought was right.
Ralph’s comments were another glimpse of the distinct work culture I’ve been witnessing so far in Portland. On the same work trip I talked to Kiersten, a fellow development intern at Crag. She had just graduated from Oregon State University and completed an Americorps program in the area. She was currently applying for a 2-year position in the Peace Corps, self-admittedly ‘hooked’ on the service-oriented lifestyle. Earlier in the week, I interviewed the artist who had painted the impressive mural on the side of Crag’s building. He was engaging fully with every aspect of his life – he created art, performed in bands, directed dance companies, and taught classes – and seemed unworried about anything save his chosen passions. To him, art was life. Selling it was secondary.
This exposure has been refreshing. As a kid, all talk of growing up was peppered with advice to “do what you love,” though this only confused me at the time. I had yet to witness any careers that involved reading picture books and pretending to be Harry Potter characters. As school got more serious, the sense that life should center around fulfillment seemed to morph as well. Instead of pursuing genuine interest, a tangential line of thought appeared: pursue what makes a lot of money, and then you’ll be able to relax by doing whatever you want.
Staff at Crag seem to have a grip on both fulfillment and achievement. By all accounts, Crag enjoys a distinguished reputation within the environmental sector, and its attorneys are a talented, driven bunch. At the same time, the office eschews perennially backbreaking corporate work culture. Within reason, staff can take days off on short notice, leave early to pick up their kids, go for midday jogs on lunch breaks, and dress casually. After five years at the company, employees can take a paid ten-week “sabbatical”. We recently had an office photo shoot for promotional photos, and staff members gamely posed with giant wolf puppets to represent our motto, “legal aid for the environment,” literally. It’s hard to imagine any group of stereotypical lawyers doing the same.
This philosophy isn’t at odds with conventional work culture, but definitely seems to present the other side of the coin. Instead of putting up with high-stress, pressure cooker work environments, they opt for a more relaxed setting. Our supervisor brings her dog, Bella, into the office every day. Instead of a chair, she works at her desk on a large purple exercise ball. Her office is more decorated than my room at home: the walls are draped with art, tiny succulents sprout from vases scattered around the room, string lights twist around the shelves, and a considerable vinyl collection occupies one corner. It is both amusing and sobering to mentally superimpose a typical corporate office on top of her eclectic space.
In fairness, the nonprofit sector deals with headaches that traditional employees spend less time thinking about. We’ve talked to many veterans of non-profit organizations for whom money is a bigger issue than they’d like. In fields that are centered around the passion of individuals, there seems to be a certain expectation that employees will take significantly reduced pay for the sake of the greater good. We recently spoke to a long-time employee of an environmental justice non-profit in Oregon who was quite frank with us: government jobs were offering him three times the salary that he currently received from his nonprofit organization. When coupled with the fact that he’d already been displaced from one neighborhood due to rent increases, one can understand why it’s so tough not to be swayed by a paycheck.
Ultimately, the circumstances that bring people to one field or another are unique. I still don’t know which type of work environment the future holds for me, but at the very least, Portland has shown me that there are options.