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Profiting by Working for a Non-Profit Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit

Here's a question I received not too long ago from an inquiring reader:

Dear Mark,
I've been looking at changing jobs recently and I am wondering if maybe I should leave the private sector and get a job in a not-for-profit. I have this notion that the people there are friendlier, that the pace is not quite as frantic, and at the end of the day they you can feel good because the work you do makes a genuine difference. Do you think it's a good idea for me to make this sort of change? What should I be watching out for?

Here's my reply.

Dear Reader,

The not-for-profit (NFP) sector can be a great place to work for those who want to feel that they are making a contribution to a cause, or to society at large. It's a huge industry here in Canada. Organizations range from the large and well-known, such as the Canadian Cancer Society, Salvation Army, United Way, and YMCA, to all sorts of smaller associations (e.g. National Advertising Benevolent Society), agencies and services.

Most depend on some mixture of government funding, grants from foundations, and donations from the public for their livelihood. One thing you should know is that in recent years the sector has tended to become more competitive. This is mainly due to reduced government support, donor fatigue (where donors lose interest in contributing money after a while since they've done it so often), increased operating costs, and the proliferation of NFPs vying for funds.

Let's jump then to your point about it being less frantic than the private sector. This could be true if you are working for a an organization that is well funded and long established, where doing what they've always been doing continues to work well, and there is little need to hustle anew. However these types of places are getting harder to find these days.

Many NFPs have discovered, sometimes excruciatingly, that the only route to survival is to ''professionalize'' themselves; that is, to pick up the pace, adopt leading edge marketing strategies, and behave more like well, a company in the private sector where you sink or swim based on how well you meet the needs of your target audience and bring in more and more revenue. Thus your skills as an advertiser or marketer might receive a sincere welcome reception in these corridors.

Except that another imperative of NFPs is to contain their costs, which brings up the important point that salaries are often somewhat lower there than in the private sector. Unless you're directly involved in revenue generation, that is, since this is the engine that sustains the organization's existence.

So are the people friendlier? It could be, depending where you work. That's because folks who choose to work in NFPs--at least in the past--have usually been drawn to the inherent goodness of the work, as well as the less frantic, more collegial atmosphere than you might expect to find in profit-driven organizations.

But again, things are changing, so its caveat emptor in terms of making your decision to leave the private sector for a job in what you're hoping is a more collegial, less taxing place of work. You do, however, have additional options if what you're looking for is work that's intrinsically rewarding while still getting paid private sector wages in a fast paced environment. These include:
  • Working at an advertising or marketing-related agency that has a number of NFPs as clients.
  • Working for a private sector company in their social marketing, community campaigns, corporate sponsorship or similar department (for instance, the big banks all have at least a few employees each who focus on these areas).
  • doing some pro bono (unpaid / volunteer) work for socially helpful clients.
If, on the other hand, your primary motivation is to use your talents and skills to directly help an organization whose raison d'etre is to assist others, but you also crave some employment security, you could consider seeking a job in a government agency that skews toward improving society. Health and Welfare Canada comes to mind. So do provincial ministries that deal with the environment. But if you really want to carve your niche and make a direct contribution, then there's no better place than an NFP for employment that rewards you--while giving you a chance to give something back to your community.

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