Professional fulfillment


What are the primary sources of professional fulfillment and how do these issues uniquely affect nonprofit professionals?


* Intrinsic rewards

The work itself must be fulfilling.

Your activities as an individual should be sufficiently meaningful and challenging. Your efforts should make a substantive contribution to the organization as a whole, and you and your colleagues’ collective efforts should make a positive and gratifying difference in the world.

If you were independently wealthy and didn’t need to earn a living to survive, these are the factors that would motivate you to continue in your present job.

Nonprofit professionals often find their work intrinsically rewarding, but it is essential to recognize that these factors must be balanced with the others below.

Work that is fulfilling in and of itself is a necessary component but is not sufficient to providing overall professional fulfillment.

* Extrinsic rewards

The fruits of your labor must be at least minimally fulfilling.

Your income should allow you to maintain a satisfactory quality of life.  Your job’s social status should be consistent with your self-image and you should find some satisfaction in the perks of your job, such as travel or a short commute.

People in the nonprofit sector generally make financial sacrifices in order to do work that is more meaningful, but intrinsically-rewarding work isn’t sustainable unless it fulfills our basic needs for extrinsic rewards as well.

Without understanding and accepting their personal requirements for such rewards as compensation and social status, nonprofit professionals run the risk of loss of fulfillment and eventual burnout.

* Individual role

The position you occupy must be personally fulfilling.

Your responsibilities should be well-suited to your skills, you should have just the right amount of autonomy and you should be comfortable with your location on the organizational chart.

People often find themselves attracted to a specific nonprofit organization or cause, but they also have to find the right role within that environment if they are going to be truly fulfilled.

It’s important to explore and understand your unique personal needs in a professional role.

Perhaps you have a strong desire to influence people and lead teams, so you’ll find it fulfilling to be a manager. Or perhaps you prize the ability to set your own course, so you’ll find it fulfilling to be an independent professional.

Working for an organization you believe in, or with a terrific set of colleagues, can be sufficiently rewarding to encourage you to take on an initial role that’s not a perfect fit, but if you don’t have the opportunity to move into the right role eventually, even the best work environment will become unfulfilling.

* Work environment

The setting in which you work must be personally fulfilling.

You should feel a sense of connection with colleagues and you should identify with the work culture that surrounds you.

This could be a function of your immediate peer group, your entire organization, your “sub-sector,” such as social services or the arts, or the nonprofit sector as a whole.

This is another area where balance is key. Nonprofit professionals may feel a strong connection to their organization’s mission without deriving a sense of fulfillment from their actual work environment.

This may be tolerable over the short term, but it is a recipe for burnout over time.

Devotion to the mission is a starting point, but a sustainable sense of professional fulfillment requires feeling aligned with your work environment as well.

— Compiled by Laura Newman

Ed Batista is an executive coach and change-management consultant based in San Francisco. He can be found online at

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