For you techies out there, there is one piece of advice I offer to almost every young person who asks me: Mix it up.
If you have been working in the private sector, try a stint in a nonprofit. These sectors — as well as social enterprises and non-governmental institutions (NGOs) — have much in common but also much that differentiates them. Spending time in different sectors can strengthen skills and advance your career, opening doors in more areas and cross-pollinating competencies from one world into another.
Designers, programmers, engineers, data specialists, IT specialists, UX experts — anyone in the tech sector, really — can bring their skills to nonprofits, NGOs and social enterprises … but each of these sectors can give you skills to carry with you as you weave back and forth across boundaries throughout your career.
Success looks similar in all these sectors. But the means to the ends differ.
My advice to people at the beginning – and, crucially, in the middle – of their careers is to mix it up between sectors. If you’ve been in business, take some of what you’ve known and spend a few years in the not-for-profit sector where you can hone your skills and have a far greater impact that will enhance your resume.
Non-profit sector leaders are increasingly aware that they require people with a variety of technology acumen for success in today’s world. As an example, in today’s technological world, non-profits need to adopt best practices for the acquisition, retention and conversion of donors and supporters from various platforms. They also require IT infrastructure for dozens or hundreds of employees and data management for thousands of donors. They need to be making decisions that are data-driven and factual rather than based on mission-driven opinions. They require skilled employees with technical expertise to chart and manage these complex tasks and endeavours in an ever increasing and changing technologically connected world. Charities may have, as I like to say, a mission that speaks to the heart. But their funders, I also tell anyone who will listen, demand business accountability that comes from the head.
The nonprofit sector loves employees who can multi-task and are willing to expand beyond their confined job duties. A career in the private sector usually pigeonholes you into a specific job category, and in the technology world, especially at large firms, you are delegated to specific job functions that do not allow you to gauge your contribution or impact on the organization as a whole.
Techies in a non-profit organization can apply all of their skills while obtaining new abilities that push their comfort level into existing and new areas of professional development. In the business world, they look for teams to complete individual tasks, but because of lack of resources, in the nonprofit world they assign multiple tasks to one individual. That is the type of on job training that is rarely available in the business world.
Non-profits will allow you to be highly creative and push the envelope of your capabilities with innovative ideas and solutions that greatly impact outcomes with measurable results – on a regular basis. In nonprofit environments your opinion matters and is sought out and you get to interact with executives and clients at the highest levels. Besides building exceptional contacts and networks, you acquire management and operational experiences first hand –skills that easily transfer to the business world.
Heart + Head Model
Wonder whether transferring from non-profit back to the business world will be troublesome? Businesses now recognize that, while some non-profit sector employees may find it difficult to transition, others bring a wealth of talent that is rarely found in business. I call it the heart-plus-head model.
The most successful companies are hiring people with non-profit experience where they acquired a variety of frontline and managerial skills with broad experiences and perspectives that will position their company as a leader in solving local, national and global economic, environmental and social issues that are important to their customers. Forbes reports that the Reputation Institute stated that your willingness to buy, recommend, work for, and invest in a company is driven more by reputation than the products or services it sells.
“60% of your buying decision is based on your perception of a company’s reputation and 40% on the product or service it sells”
Your non-profit and socially minded professional experience is beneficial. The bottom line will always be the bottom line for businesses. But there are more considerations now that consumers are increasingly demanding social commitments from the companies they patronize. Consumers are voting with their wallets every day and it’s not only about quality of product and superiority of service. Many customers are buying the social mission of a business, a corporate social responsibility bottom line that is only going to grow. Your non-profit experience infuses your job actions that guide the social mission of the company.
To succeed in the future, businesses need to adopt some of the strategies of the nonprofit sector that speak to the heart, as well as the mind. And they need employees with nonprofit experience to lead them in these endeavours.
This comes back to my advice for younger folks (or even peers) who talk to me about their aspirations. Mix it up. Spend some time in business and move over to the nonprofit sector. Go back and forth as often as seems appropriate and keep up on developments in both areas. This will help equip you with the diversity of skills, attitudes, capacities and, yes, jargons, that will serve you well as the line between for-profit and nonprofit blurs. It will make you increasingly more valuable to the business world and more beneficial to the non-profit world and an ideal candidate for other career-advancing roles, such as management or executive positions or a directorship on a board.
Strengthening organizations, whichever sector they may be in, demands that we understand and speak to our constituents’ hearts and minds in equal measure.
CEO of Quilageo, is a senior executive with 25 years corporate and nonprofit managerial experience.