On weekdays, I am a full-time student and a club president at HKU MBA.
On weekends, I have been volunteering at EmpowerU (www.empoweru.io) - an educational non-profit aimed to empower foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, since December 2018. Definitely not my first time volunteering, but it is the first time I am able to witness the setting-up foundations and closely involved in the daily operations of a non-profit organization.
This gratifying experience has taught me tremendous lessons. Still! Having been a marketing professional for a multinational corporation for more than 5 years, I have come to the conclusion that
Besides passion, there is a “personality fit” (among other factors) that one should consider before deciding to work for a nonprofit or cooperation.
I dare not say that either EmpowerU or my previous employers are the best “nonprofit” and “for-profit” representatives. But allow me to make some generalizations to share my personal experience with you on how differently the two sectors operate. In so that those who are on the fence, deciding which sector to join, can make a better-informed decision:
1. Firstly, the most obvious difference is the size of the organization:
Working for a nonprofit is like living in a small town; everyone knows each other by name. Meanwhile, working for a corporation is like living in a large city.
In a small town, you have close-knit relationships and see yourself as "part of a family”. While in a big city, you have a much faster-paced life, constantly meet new people, expand your network, but hardly know many (or any) others at a comparable level.
2. Secondly, the team and the people you work with are different too!
In "the city", each team is a group of professionals from different competencies working together. This enables higher quality and more brain-stimulating discussions where each individual can learn a lot from one another. However, as each individual’s focus is to deliver according to a specific job description, he or she becomes somewhat of a "Specialist".
The working pace is definitely much faster, way more intense, and stressful. Besides, there are already clearly-defined internal processes, hierarchies, and reviews (major lessons to learn from these, too) to monitor individuals’ performance. These reviews have a direct relationship with year-end bonuses, so they are more likely to meet expectations.
On the other hand, the major components of nonprofit teams are interns and volunteers, making the quality of the discussions much different. And as there is no direct control mechanism to leverage—besides one’s self-motivation, or how much he or she resonates with the cause—managing teams in a non-profit is extremely challenging.
Not only is the turnover rate for volunteers high (which consumes a lot of resources for recruiting, training and coaching), but also their work ethic and delivery vary greatly depending on their other priorities—professionally and personally. I have lost track of how many times I heard interns give excuses (sadly, even twice myself), especially during exam weeks.
However, the slower pace enables a better work-life balance, and the practicality of the experience learned is outstanding. You will be involved in various aspects of the organization, gaining a lot of hands-on experience. Hence, becoming more like a “Generalist”.
3. The money is the biggest shock yet!
One of the biggest realizations I came to know was the comparative luxury of corporate budgets (which I definitely took for granted). No matter the campaign, I could always call the best agencies, give a proposal according to the budget allocated, and execute it.
At nonprofits, most of the time you will not have resources for any of the “fancy stuff”. And better yet, you will have to do everything from scratch, at zero cost! Want a video? Make your own storyboard and script, ask your videographer friend to shoot for you, and ask students or volunteers to be the actors. Besides the fun, you will be involved throughout the entire process, and see the impacts of your contribution on a daily basis.
From that perspective, it will definitely help you to become more resourceful, to think outside of the box, and to focus on the “most viable” products possible, rather than to simply work for extra cash.
4. However, there is one conundrum: It’s easier to move from one direction than the other.
Some people have the freedom to move around within (cross-function), to another city (job-jumping), or to a better paying job with their specialist skills. And after some years, they decide to leave the bustling city behind, becoming a big shot in a small town. But if they decide to move to a big city from a small town, they are very likely to run into closed doors.
I know one alumni (a former lawyer) who decided to join the nonprofit sector after his graduation. He definitely accepted that he would not make the highest possible salary, but he was content with his coworkers and the cause which he was serving. And by the time I met him, it had been more than 2 years since he became General Manager of the organization.
Despite the daily lessons and massive network with which the position comes, he shared that—even at his level—it is now indeed much more challenging for him to switch to another sector (e.g finance) than when he was about to graduate. Today, his alternative option is to work for other nonprofits, either in the same or a different country. And it is even more challenging to work as an expat in this sector; not knowing the language is a big barrier to working with local interns and volunteers, and to developing campaigns and materials for local needs.
Given, I am very much speaking in generalizations. But overall, having spent some time with a nonprofit organization, I am still blown away by the team’s passion. I think it is not only the most meaningful way to dedicate what little free time one has for a cause, but also a rewarding learning curve.
For a young person—especially a fresh graduate—who is considering which profession or career path to pursue, he or she should carefully consider the following questions:
Which sectors best fit my personality?
What experience would help me develop my skills faster, and later lead me down the career path that I aspire to?
Is this the cause that I am most passionate about?
Would I best serve this cause by working full-time now? Or by volunteering my free time and joining at a later stage?
Lots of Kudos to Patrick Davis, Sachin Tipnis & many classmates from HKU MBA Class'19, especially Brady Shwartz
Should You Work For A Nonprofit Or A For-Profit: Comparing A Small-Town And Big City Mentality
Should You Work For A Nonprofit Or A For-Profit: Comparing A Small-Town And Big City Mentality. (2019). Forbes.com. Retrieved 15 March 2019, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2013/10/22/small-town-or-big-city-do-you-have-a-nonprofit-or-for-profit-mindset/#7d19f7782844