Not Getting Boxed In as a Do-Gooder

In Switzerland I met a bright, ambitious young man who has spent a couple years in consulting and is now trying to figure out what to do next. He’s intrigued by the non-profit sector and social entrepreneurship. But he’s concerned that excessive non-profit time on his resume, while he’s still young and trying to establish credibility, will make it seem soft; in other words, he’s afraid of being pigeon-holed as a do-gooder.

It’s a fair concern and relates to what seems like a massive challenge in the non-profit world: how to recruit the best and brightest young people into a sector that generally pays less and (exceptions notwithstanding) is filled with lower caliber people than in the private sector.

Teach for America has done a brilliant job at generating some caché around its jobs. My understanding is this is due to their ultimate effectiveness in the classroom (but since this is not enough by itself) it’s also due to their selectivity and how they brand this selectivity. However they do it, they have made it sexy for its young workforce to say they are a teacher for TFA at a cocktail party.

I can’t think of another non-profit which in so short a period of time has established itself as an elite, selective organization which will only hire the best.

All companies would do good to learn from TFA’s remarkable positioning / branding job.

7 comments on “Not Getting Boxed In as a Do-Gooder
  • Be careful what you say about TFA. While in some ways effective, the organization is far from the perfect non-profit you make it out to be.

    I’ve worked in the K-12 education space and Teach for America is not looked at the same way among people who understand urban public schools. The best way I’ve heard TFA described was as a “Band-aid for America’s public school systems.”

    Teachers working with TFA rarely stay for longer than 2 years, usually they’re gone after 1. This means that, come every summer, districts are just faced with replacing teachers.

    Corps members are not ready for the classroom after TFA thrusts them into a stressful urban school after only a 5 week summer program. These ivy league and liberal art graduates can’t handle the culture shock after only being trained to teach for barely a month and leave their jobs as teachers as soon as possible.

    While certainly a remarkable program, TFA is not the cure and you should recognize its faults next to it’s accomplishments.

  • My personal view is that it is better to work in the profit sector while you’re younger and then move to the non-profit when you’re older.

    Not to put a dampener but I think it’s important that people, young people especially, know exactly what they’re getting into when they work for a non-profit. It’s not just about lower pay – non-profits also tend to be less efficient & less well-managed with byzantine politics and are quite often a lot less rosy than the initial picture may suggest. I’m not suggesting non-profits are not worthwhile just that they have their own set of issues which any potential employee should be aware of lest they are banging their heads against the wall within a week of their being hired.

    I think what most non-profits need is good management, quite frankly, and the best place to learn that is the profit sector. Also, being older means one has had more time to develop a zen attitude which you will definitely need.

  • I spent several years working in the nonprofit sector. After enduring bad (or nonexistent) management, hostile coworkers, low pay, crummy (or nonexistent) benefits, I’d had enough. I decided that it was time to go make some money.

    To this day, I am very wary of donating to nonprofits. Why? Because of my personal experience. And, judging from this thread, I’m not the only person to have had a negative experience in the nonprofit sector.

    So, to the nonprofit sector I say, “Physician, heal thyself.”

  • I’m sticking up for the non-profit sector. Without the profit bottom line, it is true that some non-profits get a bit lost with their mandate and mission. However, I really want to take exception with is the idea that the non-profit sector “is filled with lower caliber people than in the private sector.”

    I am wondering what is the basis for this statement? In my experience, you can find people of all calibers in all sectors. And the non-profit sector can attract some of the most intelligent, idealistic and hard-working people around- who would rather work for an organization that they believe it than make widgets.

  • I’ve worked primarily in nonprofits during my career and I completely disagree that the sector is “filled with lower caliber people than in the private sector.” Through my years, I have met some of the most amazingly skilled and dedicated people in the nonprofit field. And the most inspiring part is that for the vast majority of these people are motivated not by money but by a larger purpose or dedication to social change.

    To address the poster’s original point, I’ve found that having a background in nonprofit work isn’t usually a negative – and quite often is an advantage – in building credibility or moving into the for-profit field. For example, a friend of mine recently went to get an MBA after several years at a nonprofit, and found that her nonprofit background was actually a huge advantaged in helping her stand out from the crowd. Further, some of the skills honed in nonprofit work – extremely cost-effective marketing, using social media to engage potential customers, working with the media, bringing together people with divergent perspectives to work toward a common purpose – are highly useful in the business world.

    Which, of course, is not to say there aren’t problems in the nonprofit field – but there’s a huge amount of great leadership, innovation and expertise in the sector.

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