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Pursuit of meaningful work blurs the business, nonprofit culture gap

Jen Cormier of Make-A-Wish Foundation of Massachusetts says she was discouraged from working at a nonprofit.
Jen Cormier of Make-A-Wish Foundation of Massachusetts says she was discouraged from working at a nonprofit. (Zara Tzanev Photo for The Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Penelope Trunk
November 11, 2007

Jobs in the nonprofit sector are growing at a faster rate than jobs in the business sector. But this might not even be the big news. The big news is that the difference between the two sectors is fading.

The gap between the nonprofit sector and the business sector is shrinking, according to nonprofit veteran Seth Rosen who blogs at technovist.com.

"As the nonprofit sector professionalizes and the most successful for-profits recruit people with a drive to do something that includes a real public benefit, the culture of the sectors will look more alike. In twenty years the difference between nonprofits and for-profits may simply be their IRS classification."

One of the biggest issues Generation X and Generation Y have is that they want to have impact. Nonprofit giving among Gen X, for example, has become very grassroots, as Gen X wants to be able to see clearly what change they are helping to instigate. And Gen Y has made it clear that working at a company where they don't understand how they fit is absolutely untenable. Everyone wants to know how they make a difference - whether it's for-profit or not-for-profit.

In the old model of nonprofits, individuals are removed from the bottom line in a way that undermines the meaning of their work. Take Andrew Broderick, for example. He used to do fund-raising for hospitals. For him, the worst part of working at a nonprofit was how far removed the compensation system was from the bottom line. "I could raise $35 million or I could raise $1 dollar and I'd earn the same amount of salary."

Recently, he switched to a sales position at Royale Printing, a short- to medium-run printing company in Madison, Wis., where his compensation is a combination of salary and commission. He feels more connected to the bigger picture, "If I make $10 million for the company I'd get paid accordingly."

Nonprofits are responding to defectors like Broderick. "As there is more and more competition for resources there is clearly an awareness of how to be more efficient," says Russ Finkelstein, associate director of Idealist.org, a job listing service for the nonprofit sector.

For example, Echoing Green is a foundation that gives grants to social entrepreneurs to create groundbreaking change in the nonprofit arena. The idea that these start-ups are accountable for creating measurable results is much more in line with the values of today's workforce - no matter what sector they come from. And employees of nonprofits manage their careers with the same focus and drive as someone in the business sector.

Jen Cormier works at Make-A-Wish in Boston. She networks with people in her field, she thinks of herself as a marketing specialist, and she plans her path through a few jobs and then graduate school as carefully as anyone going for an MBA. Similarly, in the old model of the business sector, you earned a lot of money and left the doing-good stuff to the nonprofits. Today, though, companies understand the need to make a difference no matter what sector you are in.

"There are a lot of companies that are doing things that are more socially responsible because creating this sort of work atmosphere retains people," says Finkelstein. Morgan Stanley, for example, gives employees time off to build houses for Habitat for Humanity. Salesforce.com set up a foundation to afford employees paid time to help in their community.

It's not surprising that the gap between for-profits and nonprofits is blurring because the search for meaningful work is permeating the whole workforce. People at all levels are looking to learn and grow in their work, according to Jennifer Deal, senior researcher for the Center for Creative Leadership and author of "Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground." And while nonprofits have typically been the places to feed one's soul, the business sector has woken up to the fact that one of the best ways to retain young employees is to help them grow.

One of the most shocking turns in today's workplace is that it used to be that young people went to the Peace Corps to grow. Now people go to big accounting firms because they are leading the way in retaining young workers, by infusing work with meaning. You get a mentor, you get rotating responsibilities, and you get opportunities to volunteer, on company time. Ernst & Young, for example, rewards high performers with a Social Responsibility Fellowship.

Cormier says people discouraged her from working in the nonprofit sector as being unrealistic and a poor career choice. "A lot of naysayers told me wait until you get to the real world." Other people will view socially responsible business with cynicism - firms providing do-gooder opportunities merely to win the war for talent. But you could also look at this as a sort of version of a golden age of capitalism: Finally, companies are giving back to the community in a way that touches employees at their core, and finally nonprofits are being run efficiently in a way that really does get help to the needy, and this, after all, is good for everyone.

Penelope Trunk is the author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success. Read her blog at blog.penelopetrunk.com.