Would you hire this not-for-profit worker?

People were incredibly supportive of me when I found my new job. I was inundated with calls and emails congratulating me and wishing me well. It was also interesting to see some reactions to the news that I was moving back into the private sector after more than ten years in the public and not-for-profit sectors. How did I swing that, they asked?

My humanitarian colleagues wondered how I would cope in the cold, hard private sector after years in the humanitarian field. There was a twinge of envy, too, as they wondered how much better the IT systems/travel perks/career prospects/business processes/coffee would be “on the dark side”. All wished me luck – and some asked how I escaped. Turns out I was not the only one who had struggled to get my not-for-profit experiences noticed by private sector hirers.

In the course of two years, I’d applied for twenty or so positions before I got an offer. During that time I got to initial interview only four times, and only once did I get past the agency to a proper employer interview. My résumé read very well, my LinkedIn profile was 100% complete, I networked like a heavyweight, my experiences and qualifications were relevant, and in many cases I was so over-qualified for the position I was horrified not to at least get an interview. And I know I am not the only one who experienced these barriers. What could be the explanation?

My thoughts wandered back to conversations I’d had with people in the private sector over the years. How fascinating, they’d say, working for a humanitarian organisation. It must be so rewarding, they’d say, helping people. Of course, it’s not a real job, they’d say. A cushy number, out there saving the world in a job with “no real stress”, when the rest of us have to hold down a “proper job” with “real pressures” like making money and the ever-present “threat of redundancy”.

I only wish I were paraphrasing.

I suppose people don’t know that high proportions of not-for-profit employees are on six- and twelve-month contracts, because they’ll have to go when the money runs out for their project. On top of that, the recent downturns in charitable giving have resulted in many permanent roles being cut in many not-for-profit organisations. You don’t donate, we don’t get paid. Simple.

I’ve had recruiters tell me that my skills are not transferable because they weren’t gained in an industry with real financial goals, real shareholder pressure, real accountability, real focus. I wondered at the time how they thought huge worldwide organisations delivered anything of value without clear funding streams, financial stewardship, accountability or strategic goals.

And it got me thinking about the amazing people I have worked with, and how so many perceptions about not-for-profit workers are so far off the mark.

Sure, the humanitarian field is full of people who want to contribute to a particular cause. People who give their homes free for marketing photo shoots, team meetings, away days. People who pay for stuff out of their own pockets because they don’t like to claim expenses. People who have taken a 30% pay cut – or more – to come and work for an organisation they can believe in.

But most large not-for-profits also have a predictable and bureaucratic corporate hierarchy with CEOs, Directors of Finance and HR, a National OHS Manager, Accounts Payable, R&D staff, admin assistants, payroll officers and business analysts, as well as all the people on the ground delivering the humanitarian services. A big corporation is a big corporation.

Large not-for-profits have roughly the same working environments as large private sector organisations: the inefficient IT systems, pointless office politics, severe financial pressures, interminable board wranglings, bad office layouts, cryptic management reporting and out-of-date intranet sites know not whether you are trying to make money or save the world.

The not-for-profit sector has to deliver pretty much the same as the private sector, but with far less funding and very little long-term financial security. It’s the Ginger Rogers of the business world: Fred Astaire got all the glory, but Ginger did everything he did backwards and in heels.

As for the people who work in not-for-profit, what skills or experience could they possibly have that the private sector would want?

Well, they have to be extremely resourceful and focused to get anything done with the short-term funding they often work with. They have to be black-belt project managers and compliance experts, to survive the unbelievable red tape and often unrealistic timeframes of federal government funding. They become forensic financial managers, because they hold themselves way more accountable for every cent of donor funds than any audit committee could.

They are unusually creative and innovative, because the money and the time will never stretch to the ambitious goals they set themselves. So they think outside the box again and again, and solve major problems on a shoestring because that’s all they have, and because improved outcomes for the vulnerable people they serve will motivate them to the last.

They become excellent influencers and negotiators in their attempts to engage and motivate their volunteer workforce, never mind their paid workforce of young MBAs, Ph.Ds. and post-graduates (I’ve had two PAs with Master’s degrees and a junior logistics officer pursuing a PhD in geology – it’s fantastic, and occasionally daunting).

And they normally achieve all of this on 30% less salary, no job security, and more passion than you could ever imagine.

So next time you see an application from somebody from the not-for-profit sector, check your prejudices at the door, look at what the person has really achieved in their career and what talents they are offering you, and hire one if you dare.

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