my two cents

‘Working With Rich People Is Making Me Depressed’

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

Dear Charlotte,

I’m 32 and have spent the past five years working for a nonprofit that provides educational services for kids in low-income communities. I recently got promoted and now my job is more “outward facing,” which means that I spend a fair amount of time explaining what we do to wealthy donors and/or maintaining relationships with them. I’m good at it and I understand why it’s important, but the whole song-and-dance seems gross sometimes. I often feel depressed at the end of the day — it’s partly anger that these donors have so much when others have so little, but if I’m being honest, there’s also some jealousy. I live in a decent apartment and get paid fairly, but I’m still paying off my student loans and living month to month. I’m also pretty sure that I’m never going to make a lot of money in my career. Meanwhile, the donors I talk to can spend $10,000 without even thinking. How can I keep doing my job without feeling this weird mix of envy and resentment?

First off, your feelings make sense. When you spend your working hours scrounging money for people whose lives would be drastically improved by an extra hundred bucks a month, and then turn around and watch wealthy people drop a few grand at a Tuesday night charity dinner — well, that’s a recipe for cognitive dissonance right there. You’re experiencing the world from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, and living somewhere in between.

Your anger isn’t only reasonable — it’s powerful, and it will fuel you. You just need to point it in the right direction. Many community activists describe this as “cold anger”: a steely breed of fury that helps you get through the long slog of changing big, broken systems. “Hot anger,” by contrast, is irrational, immediate, and often aimed at the wrong people. (It’s also exhausting rather than motivating.) I like to visualize the difference as a fire hose that can either save a burning building or flop around and waste water. Wrangle it properly, and you’ll use it to do great things.

Your first step is to get more comfortable discussing money in general. Obviously, you talk about other people’s money (or lack thereof) for your job, as well as budgets and so forth, but what about your own relationship to it? It’s worth delving into the ways you were raised around finances, and what was considered taboo.

It seems to me that you have a lot of guilt around money, and you’re projecting it onto these donors you deal with — and perhaps rich people in general. This flavor of shame and antipathy is pretty common (it’s normal to resent those who have much more than you do), but can be especially painful if you were brought up in a household where cash was tight, inconsistent, or the source of screaming fights. Once you can pinpoint those connections between your past and present, you’ll be more equipped to identify the source of your anxiety, as well as the anxiety itself. Experiments have shown that “emotional granularity,” or the ability to precisely describe what you’re feeling (say, “deficient, helpless, and slightly embarrassed” instead of “like crap”), helps your brain fine-tune its tools for handling the moments when you want to scream into a pillow.

Next, talk about it. I’m positive that many of your colleagues feel a similar whiplash — how do they cope? You’re far from alone in your experience of bouncing between polar opposite financial worlds. Kim Klein, the author of Fundraising for Social Change, says she’s lived with varying levels of frustration throughout her 42-year career in the nonprofit sector. “I see it all the time, and I think that confusion is a positive thing,” she says. “I’ve seen up close and personal the huge contradictions that define our country and make a mockery of the idea that we’re a meritocracy. They’re unfair. My advice is to take that rage and focus it on addressing the root cause of social injustice, not on a person or group of people.”

You could even try bringing it up with the wealthy donors themselves. Many rich people — or at least some — are well aware that they’ve gotten incredibly lucky, even if they’ve also worked hard. Sure, some claw their way up from the very bottom, but most get big boosts by accident of birth, good timing, or both. They might even be relieved if you to bring this out into the open. “I know a lot of people who were born into privilege and are enraged about it themselves, because they realize it’s not fair,” says Klein. “I find that most people react positively when you acknowledge their situation and ask about it. If you say, ‘What’s that like, being in your shoes? Tell me about it,’ you’ll build allies. And we need all the allies we can get.”

I know a woman who grew up in poverty and now runs a large foundation. When she was a kid, her parents couldn’t afford decent health care, and both died young. If they’d had just a little more money, her parents might still be alive. Today, it’s part of her job to rub elbows with people who have tennis courts in their backyards. “Of course it makes me angry,” she says. “It triggers memories from my childhood and brings up old insecurities about not having enough.” To manage it, she’s found that honesty is the best path forward. “I know it sounds overly simple, but when I open up about my past, others do the same, and that helps puts everyone at ease,” she says. When someone’s wealth bowls you over, don’t fawn or feign disinterest — turn it into a conversation.

Alternatively, it’s okay to get myopic from time to time. Ultimately, your job is to secure funding for people who need it but can’t ask for it themselves because they don’t have the access that you do. You’re a conduit. “Concentrate on the fact that these donors are willing to give away their money, not on the fact that they have it in the first place,” suggests Klein. “Your feelings are important, but they don’t make a vision. The bottom line comes down to your values: What will this money accomplish?”

As for the envy you mentioned: Cut yourself some slack. You’d have to be a zen master of the highest order to not get pangs over other people’s beach houses and shiny shoes and wine at lunch you’ll never be able to afford.

Finally, the socioeconomic distances you travel every day are bound to make anyone’s head spin. Studies consistently show that people are inclined to sequester themselves amongst those of a similar income, but you’re bouncing between these brackets constantly — and for an admirable cause. So give yourself some credit for that. The inequalities you witness really don’t make sense. But that’s why you’re doing something about it.

‘Working With Rich People Is Making Me Depressed’