Is It Time to Consider a Career with Greater Purpose?

Times of crisis and tragedy often make us introspective and give us an opportunity to reflect on our own lives. In doing so, many of us wonder about life’s purpose and ask, “Is that all there is?” or “Am I doing enough to help others?”

These are big questions.

When reflecting on questions like these ones, our thoughts inevitably go to career. Questions like these get examined:

Why am I finding such little meaning in my work?

Why am I feeling so much stress about work?

Who am I helping with my work?

When people come to me with these sort of questions, one direction I encourage them to explore is the not-for-profit sector. Here’s why:

Working in a not-for-profit can have huge rewards, the most significant being the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. Whether you are fundraising for sick children, packing food baskets for underprivileged families, or helping adults with disabilities find meaningful work, you will see the impact your work is making. Every day, you will head to work with a sense of purpose and a feeling that you are helping others.

Not-for-profits will often give you the opportunity to wear many hats and build many skills while serving the organization’s cause. Since most not-for-profits are small, there is more room for you to do work that is above and beyond your actual job description. Often, you will find all staff chipping in and working on a major project or event together, no matter what their level of skill or expertise.

Not-for-profits allow you to test your entrepreneurial side. For example, many operate social enterprises which are small revenue-generating businesses designed to achieve social, cultural, or community outcomes. You have more freedom to do these things than in the corporate world.

You will also gain leadership experience you might not get elsewhere. In the corporate world, it is unlikely you would be asked to participate in the organization’s strategic planning process or manage a major project. In not-for-profits, which are far less hierarchical, you sit side-by-side with the CEO or Executive Director discussing the future.

There are downsides too—one being budget, or lack of budget to be specific. Since many not-for-profits are funded by government grants or fundraising, there will be many times when budgets are tight. It is not uncommon for not-for-profits to use outdated technologies or have office furniture that is 20 years old.

Salaries also tend to be less, although this seems to be changing as not-for-profits recognize the need to recruit well-qualified people to their sector.

In not-for-profits, poor performance can have serious consequences. Nick Jennery, Executive Director of Feed Nova Scotia, once told me that if he doesn’t do his job well each day, some family may not have food on the table that night. Believe me, a really bad day in a corporate job is unlikely to have consequences that serious.

One last thought: The not-for-profit sector is being inundated with people who have spent time (sometimes many years) in the corporate sector and who have determined that it is time for a change to do something with a greater purpose. If you are reflecting on your career in these times, you owe it to yourself to at least explore opportunities in not-for-profit.