By Mary Cianflone, Development Manager at Pegasus Legal Services for Children

CW: This essay deals with trauma, nonprofit jobs dealing with violence and abuse, suicidal ideation, death by suicide, and the trauma from surviving a friend or coworker’s fatal suicide, and may be triggering to some readers. Please proceed with caution. If you need immediate assistance, please follow this link to International Suicide Hotlines

(Names and identifying details have been altered to protect the privacy of the people involved.)

Several years ago, I took a break from fundraising to do frontline work at a “high-trauma” non-profit organization. By “high trauma,” I mean that we provided direct services to our community and often interfaced with injured, ailing, dying, or even deceased members of this community. 

It was an incredibly intense job. Emotions ran high. Tears and yelling were not uncommon among clients and staff. 

Like many non-profit jobs, the pay was low, and the shifts were long. Most of my co-workers had second jobs because we made so little there. The work was also physically demanding. We were on our feet for hours, often needing to lift heavy loads and jog or run. The job was both horrific and rewarding, depending on the day. Sometimes, it was both in one day.  

So, why did I work there? Why did any of us? 

Because of the mission. Because the losses were catastrophic, but the wins were monumental. On the good days, we changed lives for the better. I still have photos pinned to the bulletin board of my home office to remember the people I met and the work I did there. 

The staff developed deep bonds, something akin to friendship but heavier. Even when we fought, we were allies. Even when we disliked each other, we stood together. It was more than just the experiences on the job. It was also the fact that we couldn’t share our experiences with anyone but each other. My partner would ask, How was your day? and I had to quickly scan my mind for the safest stories to share, actively filtering the full truth so as not to traumatize them. In many ways, all we had was each other. No one fully understood the pain we went through. 

The loss of my coworker Paula to suicide

So when one of my closest work friends, Paula, left the organization abruptly, I was concerned. It was a particularly stressful time among staff, and several of us were in conflict. Paula had also recently experienced hardships in her personal life. Her departure was shocking. She was a long-time employee and known as a peacemaker among the staff. Many of us counted on her experience to help settle arguments and maintain perspective. I worried about what was happening in her world that would cause her to leave a job she loved. Something felt wrong. 

When I got the call that she had died, I felt like I had known it was coming. I didn’t need to hear the next words because I already knew in my heart it was suicide. I had suspicions about her passing – that her personal struggles and the loss of her work contributed to her emotional state and, ultimately, her death. A few days later, I received a letter from her in the mail. Confirmation of my suspicions offered no comfort. I just had a piece of paper and a hole in my heart.

After a few weeks of grieving, I began to turn over the events surrounding Paula’s death in a new way. 

I have been in the grant-writing and fundraising world for over 15 years. My mind automatically reaches for data when I need context. I am used to seeking answers to questions like: What are the numbers surrounding this problem?, What societal factors cause this particular conflict?, Are there other people with similar stories?, and What are the solutions? My pain fueled a search for knowledge, in the hopes of learning how I and others in my situation could heal.

The lack of data when it comes to nonprofit workers who die by suicide

there is so little known (and few places to learn) about the people working in our field and how this work impacts their lives. There are also few protections for the staff putting themselves in physical, mental, and emotional harm every day. 

Seeking general data on suicide quickly became a bitter journey. Facts are fuzzy, and the difficulties begin with sourcing initial information. We simply don’t always know when a death is a suicide. Surviving family and friends have the choice to hold back information about their loved one’s death. The pain of suicide radiates through a community. Many make the choice to keep details private for their own preservation and for fear of causing more pain. Facts on suicide among nonprofit staff are almost non-existent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks suicide rates for a variety of industries. Their most recent study from 2020 identifies certain labor types, like “Transportation,” as having higher than average rates of suicide for males and females (non-binary and gender fluid individuals were not tracked). The study, and other governmental research projects like the Census, use the list of occupations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

However, nonprofits are not considered their own occupation or industry. Rather, the type of work, like “Healthcare Support,” is what gets categorized. For example, relevant to nonprofits, there are listings for “Fundraisers” and “Social Workers.” One reason for this is because nonprofits are, at their most basic definition, businesses operating under a particular set of tax codes. Nonprofits are ultimately accountable to groups that oversee all businesses in this country, like OSHA and the IRS. 

But, then, there is a sort of administrative void. Other fields have things like certifying boards and unions that protect and advocate for their workers. Nonprofit staff have many optional organizations we can choose to join, but nothing in the way of broader oversight. The governing landscape freefalls from the federal level until we land on the individual Board of Directors for each nonprofit.

Groups like the Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, the Library of Congress, the National Council of Nonprofits, and Independent Sector, among many others, offer piecemeal data and research on topics like starting a nonprofit, donor patterns, and employee retention. The information they provide can be valuable in many ways, especially when sourced from individuals currently working in the field. 

However, a significant portion of their research focuses on nonprofit organizational health and growth: how to keep employees on staff longer, increase donor gifts, and advocate for our missions. I in no way mean to diminish the importance of these efforts. My point is that there is so little known (and few places to learn) about the people working in our field and how this work impacts their lives. There are also few protections for the staff putting themselves in physical, mental, and emotional harm every day. 

The lack of support services nonprofit workers often face

There is something oddly cyclical about experiencing trauma, starting a nonprofit to mitigate trauma, and asking people to work at a nonprofit exposing them to trauma.

People turn to nonprofits in moments of crisis. Often, we are the ones that help them navigate obtuse government assistance programs, disaster relief, and confusing legal protocols. We feed, care for, and bolster our community. 

When trauma or tragedy occurs, we turn to nonprofits in other ways, too. For example, in seeking answers on nonprofit employees and suicide, much of what I found was information on people starting a nonprofit after a loved one’s suicide. The inclination for many is to help people heal via a nonprofit. 

But how does the work affect the workers? There is something oddly cyclical about experiencing trauma, starting a nonprofit to mitigate trauma, and asking people to work at a nonprofit exposing them to trauma.

I struggled to find data on overall suicides among nonprofit staff. Here is what I know anecdotally: I have personally experienced three coworker suicides. Paula’s was simply the one that cut deepest and closest. 

As I started to share this story with other nonprofit workers, they said they, too have lost at least one coworker to suicide. We also know that rates of suicides, in general, are rising. The 2022 article “‘It’s all preventable’: tackling America’s workplace suicide epidemic,” details multiple examples of frontline workers dying by suicide in the face of trauma and exhaustion from their jobs. A large portion of nonprofit staff would absolutely fall into the category of “frontline workers.” 

Paula and I were part of an organization that often dealt with victims of violence and abuse. Program staff had little support from management. There were no functioning mental health services outside of what insurance provided (and nothing for part-time staff). Requests for time off were often denied because of being short-staffed. On paper, our shifts were 9 hours long with an hour lunch break, but, in reality, my days were typically around 10 hours with shortened lunch breaks. During a crisis, 12-hour days were not uncommon. 

When staff pushed back and asked for better working conditions, management often weaponized the mission. We were told that any additional benefits we received would cut into the budget for client services. 

When Paula died, no grief services were offered to staff. The explanation was that since she had quit and was no longer an employee, services were unnecessary. She had been at the organization for over 10 years.

My healing journey and how I came back to nonprofit work with a new commitment to unpacking trauma

When I saw people in my field starting to open up and discuss the pain, violence, and trauma embedded in our work, my grief shifted. It still lives with me, but its weight feels more distributed, more even somehow. It feels like something I carry with me instead of dragging me down. 

I was privileged in my grief. I had a compassionate partner who made enough money to care for me when I couldn’t work after Paula’s suicide. I spent six weeks or so in bed, deeply depressed and barely able to take care of my personal hygiene, let alone contribute to our household needs or get a new job. One of my dogs never left my side and spent much of his time with his paw or head resting on my legs. 

I re-read her letter over and over again. I cried more than I thought possible. I blamed everyone for Paula’s death, including myself. I vowed never to work at another nonprofit. I would find a corporate job where I didn’t care about any of my coworkers or clients. I would never hurt like this again. 

The darkest moments for me were the ones in which I realized I missed my job. I missed the eye rolls and laughter with my coworkers, the smiles on my clients’ faces when we solved a problem together, and the feeling that what I did mattered. Things were messy, hard, and difficult when I started my day; and when I ended it, things were better, even if only for a few people. I missed conversations with Paula. I learned so much from her.  

I started looking for jobs in the private sector. Don’t care, don’t care, don’t care, I kept chanting to myself. I was hired, left, and hired somewhere else – miserable at each new place. The jobs felt so empty. I slowly (and angrily) realized that I couldn’t just switch off the part of me that connected with my former work. So, I very carefully chose a nonprofit and jumped back in. 

I have held the story of Paula’s death close to me, sharing only with a few close friends. I was scared of the weight of it. The people I told would shake their heads or cry. I felt like I was traumatizing them by reaching out. This only made me feel lonelier and more isolated in my grief. Then, things shifted in 2020. 

Like many white women, I began my anti-racist journey and started to learn about martyrdom and “white women’s tears.” I started unpacking my own racism and how I centered myself in much of my nonprofit work. 

I stumbled across Vu Le’s blog, and read his piece on suicide and nonprofits. He called on us to actively talk about suicide, helping to release the stigma of it. I agreed with him empathetically, but also, I didn’t know how. 

I believe that my anti-racist journey helped me find the tools to unpack trauma that I experienced and inflicted, as well as how to talk about it in ways that would minimize pain to others. Forums like the CCF Hub have become places of discussion and healing. Things feel like they are finally changing for our sector.

Fundraisers are in a unique position to facilitate hard conversations. We are storytellers, used to immersing ourselves in complicated conflicts, absorbing all the details, then transforming them for others to learn. We possess huge amounts of information about our organization’s mission and work, as well as massive amounts of data on surrounding issues. We are able to drill down to the smallest detail and also speak about the expansive benefits of our work over time. Big picture or small, we know how to talk to people about difficult topics. We guide our communities to hope.

I have brought up several problems and questions here without offering many solutions. For me, just starting to discuss these topics is an important step. Did Paula lose her life to suicide because she worked at a nonprofit? No, of course not. Did the repeated trauma of her work affect her? Yes, absolutely. 

None of these issues are that simple. But we have to continue talking about them. 

When I saw people in my field starting to open up and discuss the pain, violence, and trauma embedded in our work, my grief shifted. It still lives with me, but its weight feels more distributed, more even somehow. It feels like something I carry with me instead of dragging me down. 

Maybe that is the magic of community. We can share pieces of our pain and learn from them together. 

The first step toward justice is naming injustice. It’s okay that I (we) don’t have all the answers yet. We can figure them out together. 

For me, the journey feels less scary now that I am not alone. Thank you for letting me share.

Mary Cianflone

Mary Cianflone

Mary Cianflone (she/her/hers) is the Development Manager at Pegasus Legal Services for Children. She has over 15 years of experience with grants management, development, fundraising, and finance. After supporting a variety of student-focused initiatives at the University of New Mexico, she began working with the local Albuquerque non-profit community in 2016. Besides being a fundraiser, she is a digital artist, dog parent, and aspiring chef. You can connect with Mary on LinkedIn.