There seems to be a myth that the work of the nonprofit sector is reserved for “doing good” and “making a difference.” Many of my nonprofiteer colleagues and myself have experienced a version of this conversation:
- Aspiring Do-Gooder and Current Engineer: Geesh. I really wish I had a job that made a difference. I’m thinking about switching careers. Your job seems to be so rewarding. At least you get to help people.
- Current Nonprofiteer (after spending the day writing grant reports, meeting with families who just got evicted, updating a web page with a needs list, and attending a 2-hour staff meeting): Well, what causes are you interested in?
- Engineer: Well, I’d like to help kids or maybe do what you do.
- Nonprofiteer: What experience do you have with kids or working with homeless families?
- Engineer: I’ve served on the board of a tutoring organization and volunteered at a shelter once a month for the past 6 months.
- Nonprofiteer: You might consider looking at your transferable skills. More importantly probably getting a realistic preview of the types of jobs you’d like to do. Mine requires a MSW and probably involves more frustrating work than you imagine.
- Engineer: What’s an MSW?
Your job already makes a difference. Maybe you just need to change your perspective.
Almost all of us (or at least anyone who might stumble upon this website) want to help others in some capacity: financial advisors, lawyers, consultants, bookkeepers, aestheticians. I’ve talked to hundreds of job seekers. Most of them say at one point: “I want to help people.” Too many people with corporate jobs think their jobs don’t make a difference. I think they undervalue what they do.
In an unenlightened moment, I judged a woman I just met because she works for a plastic surgeon. I learned several months later that she works for a plastic surgeon that reconstructs individuals after severe burns. She makes a great living doing really important work. (I have a knot in my stomach admitting this to you because I’m pretty ashamed of myself.)
Frankly, being a nonprofit is simply an IRS designation/government definition. Somewhere along the way we’ve confused a corporate status (501c) with a blanket presumption that all charities offer meaningful work with clear missions (all my nonprofit peeps know better). And, unfortunately, there’s a presumption that because a company makes money, it is tainted and not charitable. That black and white thinking isn’t accurate any longer, especially with the advent of the Benefit Corp and B-Lab certified companies
In the third sector, for-profit money is the economic fuel for our missions’ engines. It can be a love-love relationship.
There is so much great work happening in our world at companies of all industries, sizes, and corporate designations.
- A financial advisory firm with financial advisors who serve as the fiduciary for their clients (not sell products for commission) and have a foundation that gives direct support to nonprofits. The foundation is funded by a certain qualifying clients.
- Pharmaceutical companies that make life-saving drugs and provide paid time off for volunteering. In addition, they pay generous wages that fuel philanthropy in communities across the globe.
- Engineering firms that transform neighborhoods because they’ve transformed the physical space.
- Customer service that allows the representative to act like a human being with their customers, i.e. other human beings.
- Veterinary clinics that provide discounted services to breed rescue groups but also lend out their vets for low-cost clinics.
Any job where you solve a meaningful problem, work honestly, and treat other humans like humans can be a purpose-driven job.
The question becomes: is it your job to do?
For our friend the engineer, this person has trained extensively with a unique gift that few hold. Of course, depending on the type of training this person has (mechanical, electrical, industrial, etc.), this person could choose to stay in his job and volunteer for Engineers Without Borders or gain the skills and self awareness necessary to make a complete career transition.
There’s a powerful documentary about utility workers from Indiana who volunteer all over the world to bring power to remote areas. While some utilities are technically nonprofits here in the states, that skillset is invaluable and the fact that they do this work daily AND can travel the globe with this skill is really powerful. (I don’t know about you, but installing a fan by matching the same-colored wires is as advanced as my electrical skills get. The fact that these utility workers bring electricity to an entire village is awe-inspiring to me.)
I’m not advocating for you to stay in a career just because you’re trained in it. I’m asking you to ask yourself the necessary questions to really figure out what is your work to do:
- What are my top values and how do I want to live them out in a career?
- Where, in my current job, do I get to help people in meaningful ways?
- What are my opportunities to treat my colleagues and customers with more humanity?
- How can I lead with my heart at work? What’s holding me back from doing more of that?
These seem like really big questions, and they are. But if you don’t stop to answer these before any career move or significant volunteer experience, you’ll find yourself drifting to another meaningless (to you) role. It could even be at a 501c3 if you’re not careful.
Now it’s your turn.
How do you find meaning in your job, regardless of where you work?