About that Nonprofit Career Path (or Jungle Gym)

Gym

September 14, 2014; New York Times

Yesterday’s New York Times printed a letter to the editor from Omar Garriott about and to college seniors who will be looking for serious jobs that will advance their life’s work next year. He worries that many of those seniors, at least in fields of study like business and engineering, are not even considering the nonprofit sector—but, he says, this is where these grads are most needed and where they can contribute the most.

He bases much of his argument on his own experience, writing,

“Working for a rapidly growing nonprofit, I got a crash course in marketing, fund-raising, information technology and policy advocacy. I was a 20-something who had no clue what I was doing. But the best way to learn is by trying. And I did so in service to a mission I believed in.

“This breadth and depth of experience set me up (and set me apart) for a top M.B.A. program and jobs at leading tech companies. And it sped up learning about what my unique contribution to the world was to be.”

Okay, let’s just stop and take a breath here. There is a lot in these few paragraphs that does not necessarily follow.

First, you have the assumption that nonprofits are seeking professional skills as taught in school above many other characteristics, such as a proven commitment to the field and and a track record that matches it. One young reader, responding to the letter, said that she was edged aside for an entry-level job at an NGO by a women without the formal education she had but with a few years of experience working on the ground in Africa.

Graduating students would do well to understand that experience matters and that they must respect apprenticeship-type learning as much as academic. Garriott talks about being a twenty-something with no clue what he was doing, and he says “the best way to learn is by trying.” We might agree with that, but for nonprofits looking to hire proven staff, the assumption that one learns and proves one’s self by trying may very well translate into a preference for someone who has put in some time doing parts of the job for which they are being hired and who has a sense of the rigors and nuances of the work.

That said, I agree that nonprofits are an excellent place to try your hand at many types of endeavors but only if the nonprofit is open to such stuff and can support it. Highly hierarchical nonprofit organizations with immutable protocols and narrow job descriptions are unlikely to afford the kind of learning environment Garriott was privileged to be a part of. If you want that kind of environment, you have to find it and then continue to negotiate through hard and creative work.

One of the very best ways of incorporating deep learning is to do work of consequence, where the results of your work actually adds or detracts from the organization’s outcomes. This is very often how staff are tested and grow.

Garriott loses us when he advises new grads to seek out nonprofits “that are well funded and growing, with bold aspirations and business models.” That first qualifier, in fact, leaves out a good part of the nonprofit sector, which comprises small to mid-size organizations with sometimes hinky financial conundrums to work out and make work. Bold business models, by the way, do not always translate to success or great funding, so he is really narrowing the choices here.

We like this advice from one of the readers, Natalie Goodis:

“Young grads have to remember that there is no such thing as a career path; it’s more like a career jungle gym with jumps, lateral moves and falls. We have the power to write our own story, and just because I’m working for a tech company right now does not mean that I won’t go back to business or law school or decide to work for a nonprofit down the line. It’s all part of the journey. It’s up to us, the recent grads, not to get stuck in the binary.”

—Ruth McCambridge