About that Nonprofit Career Path (or Jungle Gym)

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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

  • Bob Fitch

    The advice from Natalie Goodis is some of the most eloquent I’ve ever seen regarding careers. I’ve been playing in the jungle gym for 27 years now. Graduating from college with a B.A. in history without a desire to pursue further formal schooling left me wondering what park I should be playing in, let alone what jungle gym to be swinging on. I took a job in my fallback career of journalism and quickly moved from being a reporter to being the editor of a multi-state agricultural magazine. I could have been set for life. But I wasn’t fulfilled on that part of the jungle gym. And, even though it meant a cut in pay, I swung “down” on the jungle gym to pursue a career with an agricultural trade association. That swing down on the jungle gym was the best thing I ever did because, 4 years later, I landed a CEO position with an incredible nonprofit organization that ended up being very fulfilling and lucrative. Once again, I could have been set for life. But 16 years later, I took a huge leap to become the owner of a company that provides board development and strategic planning services to nonprofits. Just like my decision 20 years earlier, I was swinging down on the career jungle gym as far as pay and benefits were concerned. It remains to be seen if this leap will be lucrative, but my jungle gym swinging has certainly provided some thrills in life!

  • Susan Schmidt, Nonprofit Leadership Alliance

    You bring up an interesting point … What attributes are (or should be) most attractive to nonprofit hiring managers? I think most of us agree that “proven commitment to the field” is high on the list. Along those lines, we recently partnered with LinkedIn on a study to determine the impact of our credential on the career trajectory of our students. The results show that our Certified Nonprofit Professionals stay in the sector 50% longer than their peers (and are seven times more likely to rise to director+ level). This made us really question the “why”. Why do leadership development programs like ours infuse a long-lasting commitment to the sector? I posit that the answer lies in the intentionality of the career choice (our students *choose* a nonprofit career path). Which means by starting early and exposing young adults and adolescents to careers in the nonprofit sector, we will increase the likeliness of having talent that isn’t just talented – but also passionate about the work. Thanks to both you and Mr. Garriott for placing focus on the critical issue of building the sector’s talent pipeline.

  • Anne Desrosiers

    I must say that while nonprofit work is rewarding – there needs to be a shift in the funding and capacity structure within it in order for Garriot’s statements to be true. I agree wholeheartedly with the responses written by Ruth who has hit the nail on the head in terms of the idealist perspective of what types of nonprofits exist and the predominant reality that we live in this field. I hold a Master of Science in Nonprofit Management, interned at a small arts education nonprofit, volunteered at other nonprofits, served as an Americorps Volunteer in Service to America in two different states, and founded my own organization (The World is Your Oyster) to name some of my experience with nonprofits. As a younger social entrepreneur who has worked several years in the sector, at times I can admit that it is frustrating because leadership and support is not readily financed. Nonprofits have more reporting and accountability measures than private companies yet staff that work in this sector are paid much less for the added workload these jobs entail. Also from a fundraising perspective, salaries for staff are the hardest grants to obtain – as if doing good happens without the talent to drive it!

    Before I returned to graduate school, I attempted to gain entry into the nonprofit field and my marketing, communication, and relationship management (I was in Advertising) was overlooked simply because I hadn’t worked at a nonprofit before. I think from within the sector nonprofits need to approach skills development and hiring from the approach of transferable skills instead of repetition/replication of the roles they seek to fill. The reality also is that working at a nonprofit (at least one of the many small-midsize ones) means you most certainly wear multiple hats and work on various responsibilities – which nonprofits do not always readily ascertain, or disclose when offering the lower salaries they can afford to offer. Many nonprofits also only have grants for specific periods of time, typically leaving both employees and organizations with voids once the money runs out.

    I always tell graduates to pursue their passions and see where that leads – but with the rising costs of education, lack of a stable economy and opportunities, going into the nonprofit sector can be viewed by many as a rewarding but risky proposition. I love what I do, but while I wait to get paid for it, I’m left trying to find other ways to live my passion and maintain a livelihood which not everyone wants to have to do.