Making the Leap: From Corporate World to Non-Profit

How we spend our time is more important than the amount of money we earn. By now, we’ve all heard that science links altruism to sustaining and increasing happiness. Research also shows that people working in the non-profit sector are more satisfied with their jobs and life. And, opportunities are not lacking — non-profit sector hiring has been accelerating according to non-profit HR report from 2016. Volunteering is strong too — 25.3 percent of US adults volunteered with an organization in 2014, contributing an estimated 8.7 billion hours.

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At a time when the world is facing so many challenges, you might be feeling the urge to do something to help solve the problems you’re reading about or seeing around you — homelessness, poverty, discrimination, lack of access to basic human rights like education or healthcare. Maybe, you’ve been in private sector for a while, possibly donated, or even volunteered at a non-profit. Now feels like the right time to dedicate yourself to something more meaningful, something that gives you the opportunity to contribute to a better life for all.

Where do you start? What do you need to know before you make the leap? Those are the same questions I was asking myself just a few years ago as I was looking to switch from #corporate to #non-profit sector.

I’ve always been interested in social impact and often found small ways to support social causes while focusing on other things full time — completing my studies or launching products in private sector. My passion for helping underserved is rooted in my own experience of being a refugee and refugee teacher. After college, I made the decision to get business experience in private sector, pursuing another passion of mine — technology. During that time, I stayed committed to #socialimpact, just not full time. And, at some point that wasn’t enough. It took me 13 years to find my way to non-profit sector and commit full-time. (If you are interested in my path, take a look at my LinkedIn profile.)

Since I made the leap into the non-profit sector 3 years ago, friends and friends of friends who are currently working in the corporate sector have been asking for advice. One of them suggested I share my learnings in a blog post. It’s important to note that others might have a different non-profit experience, but these are a few of my observations.

First, I think it’s helpful to debunk some myths about the differences between non-profit and for-profit sectors. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there are more similarities between the two sectors than originally thought.

Non-profits are not just charities: Non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations don’t have to depend only on charitable donations, they can also have earned revenue. Revenue-producing services or products enable a non-profit to be less reliant on donor funding as a sole source of support for its social mission and become more self-sustainable over time. This is also good news for those with a business background — skills like business development, sales, finance and marketing are highly valuable in the non-profit sector. You will, however, need to adapt your skills to this new context of social good.

They use modern technology and business practices: I thought they’d be outdated and bureaucratic but non-profits can and do use some of the same business practices and methodology that for-profit companies have, including fiscal year planning, KPIs, value proposition and positioning frameworks. Non-profits use modern productivity tools to plan, manage, and implement their programs — from Asana, Confluence, Box or Dropbox, to Google, Microsoft, and Apple products. For those of you used to business practices and tech tools, this is helpful considering that everything else will be new and require onboarding and adjustment.

Non-profits get stuff done: Non-profit is not where bored housewives go to spend their time. Employees in the non-profit sector work as hard as those working in the private sector, sometimes even harder. They are resourceful, used to doing more with less, and many are doing multiple jobs — Marketing and Partnerships, Product and Business Development — these jobs are similar to what you find in the for-profit startup world.

For-profit organizations can do good: And, not just through traditional Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). In addition to cash grants, corporates can support social causes with expertise such as access to technical expertise, resources like products or employee volunteers, and business practices like diversity in hiring.

Now for the part you probably expect. And, the reality.

The people you work with: Will not be clocking in for their 9–5, they feel very “called” to be there, they are working on projects that closely align with their personal values, they are on a shared mission. And, they are diverse. Possibly more diverse than the private sector. And, I am not talking only about gender, age, ethnic background. I found non-profits to be melting pots of people from different sectors — academia, philanthropy, business, non-profit, public service. That diversity of experiences and perspectives can be incredibly valuable to a non-profit as long as there is a shared language and processes for getting work done.

The people you work for/audience you serve: Working at a non-profit requires a silent layer of empathy, every decision you make, you’ll make on behalf of other people or cause. So, launching a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) of your product or offering in non-profit space — where target audience is underserved and vulnerable like ‘opportunity youth’ or people living below the poverty line — is very different from delivering an MVP to an audience that has the ability to choose and resources to put up with the inadequacies of your MVP. ‘Failing forward’ is not the best approach in the non-profit space. Instead, start with empathy for your audience and do the extra work to make it easier for them out of the gates.

Your financial compensation: Will be lower. Be prepared to take a paycut and forgo increase of income over time. So, make sure that it works for your lifestyle for the long haul not just for a few months. Also, expect adjustment in perks like professional development, team events, conferences. Professional development will happen on the job. You will learn as you try different things, ask questions, or access the abundance of resources on the web and in your community. And, don’t forget to take time to reflect on your learnings and share them with your colleagues.

Before you make the leap.

Take time to understand why you want to go into non-profit sector. It’s important that you make the change because you believe in the non-profit mission and want to serve others. Explore what areas motivate you the most. Is it women, education, international development, U.S.-based work, healthcare, workforce development, other. And, do the inventory of skills and networks you can bring to a non-profit.

My personal experience of being a former refugee, teacher, and later activist for women’s rights informed my decision. More recently, doing the ‘flower exercise’ from ‘What Color is Your Parachute’ book written by my friend Gary’s late father, provided clarity around my interests, skills, and values.

Lastly, consider getting experience in non-profit sector as non-staff — a volunteer, contractor, through your employer. This will help you test and reaffirm your ‘reason’, learn how to serve, bridge your private sector ‘way of doing things’ to the non-profit context, and build your non-profit part of the resume. And, don’t forget to network and talk to your friends who work in the non-profit sector.

There’s more to share on this topic and don’t hesitate to reach out if you want to talk.

In closing…it can be really tempting to do nothing and stay on the sidelines. If there is one thing you take from this post is that you should at least try it. If you go into the non-profit sector, you will become cross-sector minded even if you don’t stay for a long time and that’s already a plus for any job in private sector. If non-profit 9–5 is not for you or not for right now, there is a happy medium like contributing from your current vantage point in private sector — #volunteering, donating (don’t forget gift matching!), raising funds for a cause by running a race, or making your business practices more socially conscious by hiring opportunity youth. Another option is to consult, which is what I’m doing right now. Just do something. It counts.