Q: How do you explain a career shift that was purely for financial reasons? I used to work in a non-profit, education-based organization, which I really enjoyed, but the low pay, long hours, and lack of advancement got me down. I left for a corporate job with a steady schedule, benefits, and money. When asked, how do I spin it so I don’t sound like a sell-out?
A: Many people who work for non-profit, mission-driven, or education-based organizations recognize that, historically, they pay less than corporate organizations. For some not-for-profit organizations, that has changed significantly, and money and advancement opportunities are now part of the package. If you left a non-profit because you recognized that the lifestyle it created for you wasn’t something you wanted, there’s no spin needed. To label yourself a “sell-out” suggests that you no longer support the mission or vision of the cause or causes you believe in. There are many ways to demonstrate that isn’t the case—if you feel you need to show anyone.
You really don’t need to explain to anyone, except a hiring manager. And you already did that. There is no shame in being honest about what your goals were and what influenced your career decisions. You could talk about the fact that you really felt compelled to make a certain living for yourself or your family or that you wanted to work toward being able to buy a home, or whatever goal you my have. “Selling out” implies compromising your principles, and you are the person who determines whether that is accurate or not. Every job occurs at a point in your life and for different needs. If you know you live with integrity, others will know that too—whether in the corporate world or non-profit.
You should also exhibit how you maintained your interest and involvement in a particular mission or cause, even as you transitioned into a corporate role. Perhaps you volunteered at a school, served on a city board that assisted your social cause, were able to contribute more financially, or otherwise continued to dedicate yourself to certain values or missions in ways other than working for the non-profit organization.
If you decide to go back to the non-profit sector, be prepared to talk about that decision too—you may have to provide some reassurance that you won’t be leaving quickly for corporate role again. You might say something like, “I loved the work I was doing, and I would not have been able to buy a house in that situation. I decided to go corporate and make some positive financial adjustments in my life, and now I want to come back to my first passion and mission-driven orientation, which is an organization like this.” You should also highlight skills you learned and experience you gained in corporate roles that could be applied in the non-profit setting.
Taking a corporate role after working in a non-profit isn’t selling out. It’s taking time to work toward other goals, financial or otherwise, and gain valuable experience and expertise for your career going forward, whether you remain in a corporate organization or return to a non-profit. When explaining this move, demonstrate how you’ve taken the initiative to achieve your goals while maintaining your investment in the values and mission that you admire in non-profit institutions.