Business World Refugees

posted January 26, 2009

We Greenhorns welcome these new refugees to farming & soil.
Business World Refugees in the Nonprofit Sector

by Nathaniel Whittemore. Published January 15, 2009 @ 08:11AM PST

tractor_mediumNothing like hiring freezes at Fortune 500 companies to send MBAs running the way of the nonprofit sector, or so it seems according to two recent articles that explore similar themes but come to virtually mutually exclusive conclusions.

In “Skyrocketing Interest in Careers in Social Entrepreneurship and Start-ups Evidenced by MIT Sloan School “Tech Trek“,” Social Venture Technology (SVT) Group staffer Amie Vaccaro writes a great post about a recent visit by a number of MIT MBAs who came to visit her organizations office as part of the annual Tech Trek, a program through which students spend time on-site with tech firms in Seattle and Silicon Valley.

According to the article, hiring freezes at Tech Trek mainstays like Google and Yahoo! had opened up more room for socially-focused startups. The students who visited were genuinely interested, writes Vaccaro, even if they didn’t have a lot of social change work in their background:

“Perhaps this is a positive outcome of the downturn: the bright minds of my generation are turning away from banking, consulting, and marketing toward social entrepreneurship and environmental innovation, where we need them most. As Amanda Symonds, a Trekker who visited us at SVT noted, “there is a lot of talent that would otherwise have pursued traditional career paths now looking to join small, entrepreneurial businesses, or to start their own businesses. Some of the greatest companies like Apple and Google were formed during a recession, and MIT Sloan students are hard-working, driven people looking to be part of the next big thing.””

That rosey sentiment could barely be more dissimilar from what Nancy Lublin, CEO of “Do Something,” has to say in her fierce Fast Company blog: “Nonprofits? Not a Recessionary Refuge for Job Seekers.”

The article seethes with frustration. Lublin shares how in the last few months, the number of people asking her for references or recommendations for work in the nonprofit sector has skyrocketed. But importantly, her frustration is not focused on the fact of the requests. Its the casual ignorance of the difficulty, seriousness, and sophistication of the nonprofit sector itself that has her up in arms:

I ask, “What kind of thing are you looking to do?” They reply, “Oh, anything in the not-for-profit sector. I just want to make the world a better place.” This is like me by saying, “Oh, anything in the for-profit world would be fine. I just want to make money.”

News flash: We’re not a bunch of dummies in Birkenstocks who sit around watching Oprah all day. Your résumé’s expensive paper stock does not tell me anything about your office abilities. Your matchy-matchy suit and accessories don’t tell me that you understand our business model.

…Please stop thinking that “we’d be lucky to have you” when you have no experience in our world. I had braces, I brush my teeth every day, and (sometimes) I floss. This doesn’t mean I can perform root canals. (That analogy assumes you’ve even spent time doing work related to our space. I’m shocked by how many people wanting to “make the switch” have never even volunteered anywhere.)”

I have to say I understand Lublin’s frustration. Working with undergraduates every day, I see how pernicious the assumptions about the nonprofit sector. Students who have spent four years of their career dedicating themselves to serious social change feel like they have to suddenly switch gears and get management consulting jobs, in order to acquire something called “skills,” although what skills exactly those programs provide and how one is supposed to use them remains a bit of a mystery. Sometimes its exactly the right decision; a lot of the time, its just the only decision that seems available.

Still, I think that Vacarro is absolutely right to be excited about the number of well-trained young people who are thinking about careers dedicated to making the world a better place. In general, this conversation quickly hits a dead-end when we approach it the way we have been, breaking apart social good and financial value as two diametrically opposed sectors and career paths. So here’s what I’d like to see:

Some parts of the business world need to give up the hubris that their work is in some quantifiable way “harder” than the work of the nonprofit sector, just because the financial rewards for that work are greater. Business skills don’t, necessarily, transfer easily to the difficult business of ending social ills, and in fact sometimes “business” preconceptions get in the way.

Some parts of the nonprofit sector have give up the antagonism towards the business world, and stop the cycle of mutual suspicion and distrust. Nonprofits don’t have exclusive domain over the desire to change the world, just because they’ve been doing it longer than the new MBA hire, and its not fair to assume the worst of people’s intentions. Everyone serious about creating social good should be nurtured.

Almost all of us need to think differently about skills, and recognize that different people who care about social change have different skills to be levied. Nonprofits tend to be great at understanding and engaging their ground-level stakeholders – that’s a skill, and one fundamental to the success of programs from education to health and beyond. People with management degrees tend to have more rigorous training in analysis and financial planning. You put those things together and you have the potential to build fiscally sound organizations that understand their mission and how to relate to the people that matter most to them. Sounds pretty good.

Finally, lets break the dichotomous perception between nonprofit and for-profit enterprise to a spectrum view which see social, environmental, and financial value as parts of a spectrum.