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Sep 16, 2014

A Role for Nonprofits in Jumpstarting a Career?

There was a recent flurry of letters to the editor at the New York Times debating whether a nonprofit was a good or a bad place for a young graduate to launch a career.

The dialogue was started by a letter that bemoaned that fewer than one in ten college seniors plan to go to work in the nonprofit sector. The writer claimed “the nonprofit sector is where these news grads are really needed – and where they can develop and contribute the most.”

The first rebuttal countered that private sector business is the proper training ground for future civic leaders. While a personal commitment to civic engagement is a lifelong “journey”, the data-driven decision-making skills needed for career success can best be found in a private sector job, the writer claimed.

The second rebuttal noted that the student debt and financial insecurity of a new graduate demanded starting with the “better paying” jobs in the private sector. Of course, this was rebutted by “working for a nonprofit is not simply an errand on the way to a larger paycheck.”

In starting a career, the real issue must not be the starting salary but rather the opportunity to acquire the professional skills that will lead to a successful career. Noted another writer, “There is a perception that career success…is tied to the size, prestige, and exclusivity of an organization. (However,) the best opportunities for professional growth exist in organizations that have the best opportunities for enterprise growth.”

On this point the private sector and nonprofit sector advocates came together: the best nonprofits for a budding career are “well-funded and growing” while the best private sector businesses are “small start-ups.”

These two worlds meet in social enterprises: new start-up businesses that are run on the same principles as for-profit businesses with the important addition of a strong social focus. That profile is why so many students and new graduates want socially-engaged jobs. And many business programs are responding. According to data by the Bridgespan Group, the number of MBA courses with social benefit content in the last five years has gone from 45 courses to 95 at Yale, from 30 to 74 at UC Berkeley, and has reached 12 and 8 at Cornell and UPenn, respectively.  (For more on this topic, see my earlier blog Why would a millennial work for your company.)

Social enterprises are start-up businesses that have bold aspirations and competitive business plans. Some will fail. Most entrepreneurs believe that failure is where most learning occurs. But many will become the successful, profitable, well-run businesses that provide the early experiences that lay the foundation for a satisfying career.

Social enterprise provides the common ground for these divergent views on where best to start a career. As the initial writer responded, “My former co-workers at Apple toiled away because they, too, were mission-connected. But there’s something magical, something lastingly resonant about nonprofit work or direct service as one’s first job.”

The best advice for a fulfilling career? Follow your bliss. Today’s university students have the right instincts: the fastest way to find out what is their bliss may be to start their career working for a social enterprise. If you want to know about some of the social enterprises in our community, send an email to