How I Quit The Social Sector To Join The Corporate World

You probably read the title and thought there’s either a typo or factual error in that statement. Yes, I am well aware of the fact that it’s an anomalous statement. This was in fact my very motivation to narrate the story of how I started my career in the non-profit sector and ended up in the big bad corporate world. Or as some may like to think, the story of how I sold my soul.

Contrary to what you may believe, I did not join the social sector because I wanted a job that was noble sounding or ‘less hectic.’ In fact I wanted a job that was challenging. And what could be more challenging than trying to make the world a better place, I thought.

Two years into my career I realized my job was not right for me, and decided to quit.

Policy advocacy, though it managed to sound impressive, would eventually evoke either one, or a combination, of the following reactions from people around me, once they had established that I worked at an ‘NGO.’

The first was the uber-ignorant question about whether you get paid. Because pro-bono, charity, and non-profit basically all mean the same thing. The second was a pat on the back for choosing a more relaxed and comfortable job. Because trying to find solutions to some of the most pressing social problems equals leisure. The third is gushing praise at how the work must be so rewarding — and hence compensating for the lack of money.

While these stereotypes irked me, the reason I decided to quit was not because they exist, but because they’re not true. I definitely did not find my job comfortable or relaxed, but sadly I did not even find it rewarding. Simply put, it wasn’t the right job for me.

The narrow perception we have of the social sector causes us to overlook two very important factors. The first is that your company’s larger mission isn’t enough to guarantee you job satisfaction. Just because I believe that the education system needs to improve, doesn’t mean that I derive my energy from maintaining excel sheets of potential donors. Just because I believe that the accountability of elected representatives should be strengthened, doesn’t mean that I want to spend my day cold-calling their offices and chasing their PAs for months to try and get a meeting. The corollary of this is true for the corporate world, where not every job is simply about maximizing profits.

The second phenomenon is one I discussed in my prequel to this article called “How The ‘I Quit My Corporate Job’ Syndrome Creates Unwanted Stereotypes About The Social Sector. Romanticizing the social sector creates the perception that all NGO employees work at the grassroots level directly with underprivileged or marginalised communities. The truth is that the impact your work isn’t always tangible, and is often administrative and repetitive.

So, coming back to the story of how I sold my soul — I switched from policy advocacy to digital media. To most, this appeared to be a 180-degree switch. In reality, I was simply shifting from liaising with the government on behalf of an organization to liaising with several clients on behalf of a firm. But that distinction is only visible in a parallel universe. In this universe, I was leaving a noble and charitable group of Samaritans to join a group of evil and greedy money-churning machines. It was a shift that few had heard of, because logic dictates that you leave the corporate for the social sector.

Did I find a huge change between the two jobs? Yes, but only to an extent. The most prominent difference for me was that results are more immediate and tangible in the corporate sector. This is only a logical conclusion, if you compare the task of convincing the government to change its policy to convincing a corporate giant to revamp its social media presence.

But the real questions was, did I feel like my corporate job was less meaningful? After all, that is the perennial problem for anyone who has made the conventional switch from the corporate to the social sector. Unable to identify with this feeling, At first I was even ashamed to admit that I enjoyed my new job far more than my previous assignments. The formal meetings, the tight deadlines, the high-strung energy were a refreshing change that I welcomed eagerly.

Working in the corporate sector also taught me to develop a thicker skin. What I am about to say may come across as a generalization (and I am more than happy to hear from those who disagree), but people in the social sector seem nicer. I am not comparing personalities here, but working style and conduct. Perhaps it’s the short timelines and the dizzyingly fast-paced environment that bring out the worst in people. Being yelled at for not meeting a deadline, or messing up a deck the day before a big meeting, suddenly become a way of life; a lifestyle from which you can grow stronger and hopefully learn from.

One thing I am still unable to grow accustomed to is the dismissive comments about charity, and not-for-profit work that people make in the corporate world (the most famous is the ‘do you think we’re a charity?’ statement when negotiating commercials). This allows me to appreciate the sensitivity that working in the social sector has instilled in me.

My journey from the social sector to the corporate world has taught me that ultimately ‘job satisfaction’ and ‘fitting in’ at your workplace are derived from much more than what your company does, and whether is oriented toward making a profit or not. For me, it was by selling my soul that I achieved them, and proudly so!

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