Compassionate Careers: Making a Living by Making a Difference

Jeffrey W. Pryor & Alexandra Mitchell

288 pages, Career Press, 2015

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Compassionate Careers: Making a Living by Making a Difference (Career Press, March 2015) was inspired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he said to authors Dr. Jeffrey Pryor and Alexandra Mitchell, “If we don’t refresh the face of civil society, we won’t have civil society.” He then challenged them to write this book. And they did.

Compassionate Careers invites people, especially young people, to seek cause-focused employment—to blend their passion, purpose, and profession. This book is written primarily for people who are considering cause-focused work, and secondarily for the broader field of capacity building for career development, education, nonprofit leadership, boards, philanthropic organizations and the faith community. Compassionate Careers is meant to inform, empower, and inspire. In this sense, it’s more than a book - it’s a larger collaborative effort involving numerous state and national associations, along with a social media campaign to mobilize and engage a new and diverse workforce. The primary goal is to advance a Talent Transfusion for the 21st Century—to engage a million Millennials across the globe in cause-focused work by 2020.

Overcoming Social Stigmas

Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
 —Steve Jobs

Doris Kester, from Pueblo, Colorado, told us that her 14-year-old daughter was given an assignment to write a paper about her plans for a future career. She had been in Girl Scouts for six years and loved the program, the leadership opportunities, camping, and the camaraderie with the other girls. One of the Girl Scout professionals, who was also the camp director, was a role model for her daughter, so the girl wrote about wanting to emulate her and work for the Girl Scouts when she grew up. In shock, her teacher responded, “Oh no, dear. You are far too smart to work for a nonprofit!”

We’d love to tell you nothing but wonderful things about compassionate careers, but we recognize the challenges. People struggle against societal mindsets and their own internalized perceptions. It’s not uncommon to get quizzical responses when you tell people you’ve chosen to work in a cause-focused organization, or—worse yet—that you are dedicating yourself to a long-term compassionate career, whether as a nonprofit employee, elementary schoolteacher, international development worker, or nurse’s aide.

Despite the growing number of cross-sector opportunities we mentioned in Chapter 1, purpose-driven jobs are still predominantly found in what is alternatively called the nonprofit, philanthropic, independent, social, or third sector. We joke that we might as well call it the “invisible sector.” Despite substantial and diverse opportunities, the extent to which the sector is continually overlooked is astounding. In this chapter we’ll address some of the hesitations that people have about pursuing a compassionate career and hopefully demystify some common misconceptions.

Professional status

Working in a cause-driven organization is often, oddly, not a fully acknowledged career choice. “I was really just looking for something else, something more meaningful,” said Scott Curran, who now serves as general counsel for the Clinton Foundation, about why he decided to leave big-city corporate law to explore options in the social sector. He’s not alone. Like Scott, many wish to redefine what’s important to them—to dedicate themselves to work that matters, work that’s transformative, and work that reinforces a personal sense of mission.

Not everyone was on board with Scott’s decision, however. The first person Scott told that he was leaving the law firm to pursue a masters degree in the inaugural class of the Clinton School of Public Service questioned the wisdom of leaving an established career path for a new one with no clear destination.

“I’m really happy I took the leap of faith anyway. Taking a step backward in one way, by leaving an established legal practice and going back to school, even if to pursue a degree that had never previously been offered at a school that didn’t yet exist, opened up new doors to new opportunities I never could have imagined,” Scott says.

One thing that doesn’t help is that we have such dreary terminology for the field. Most cause-focused organizations have a special nonprofit tax status, but anything that begins with “non” rings negative. Subconsciously, this nomenclature brings on a degree of dismissal that haunts nonprofits, particularly in
 countries where people are
 born and bred on capital
ism. “Turn off the nonprofit
 switch” says Alexis Owen,
 who made the huge September 11 quilt. “A non
profit switch is a tax structure for God’s sake. Turn it off! The criteria should be, ‘Gosh, you’re super smart, I really think you can change the world, and here’s one way to do it.’”

For-profit leaders are beginning to see the value and transferability of the skills and attitudes that purpose-driven organizations build.

Jeff did his doctoral dissertation on this topic, which included a comparative analysis of the perceived merit of working in a for-profit versus a nonprofit. Jeff found that for-profit leaders were largely skeptical of the competencies of their nonprofit counterparts. Nonprofit leaders, on the other hand, felt they were just as capable as for-profit leaders, but agreed that the general public respected them less. This is important for someone getting into the field to consider, because if you want to transfer your expertise from nonprofit to for-profit, you may not get full credit. Fortunately, Jeff ’s dissertation was completed many moons ago, and—though there’s still truth to his findings—things are starting to change. For-profit leaders are beginning to see the value and transferability of the skills and attitudes that purpose-driven organizations build.

If you’re young, you may be planning to develop your resume and sharpen your professional skills. We encourage you to consider purpose-driven work as an alternative to other fill-in-the-gap jobs. We spoke to Kurt McManus, a young civil engineer who got a job building homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He had this to say about his experience: “It taught me how to truly be an engineer. I worked with families in distress, across functions, in a supply chain that I did not control, with inept local government. I did not learn this stuff in engineering school, but what I learned in this community allows me to take engineering anywhere in the world.”

Grant D’Arcy took a summer internship position at Feeding America and ended up landing a strategic operations job, which led him to being hired in the Business and Operations Strategy Department at Google—all in just five years. Grant recalls that many of his friends wondered how he was going to be able to support himself with a job at Feeding America. “Among my peers, it was ‘Oh my God, you’re going into the nonprofit world… is that something you can live on?’ But they’ve seen how much I enjoyed that job [Feeding America] and that it turned out to be a very valuable career move.”

The prevailing attitude that working in a nonprofit organization equates to a lower professional status comes partly from broad misconceptions about the rigor of the work. Said Bill Achenbach, director of human resources at the American Heart Association, “I’ve interviewed many people who are moving from a for-profit job to the nonprofit world. It’s interesting to me that nine out of 10 of them feel like they’re going to step away from their 50–60 hour week and just kind of relax. But that’s not how it works.” As with any high-level position, work at the top is going to require a lot of time and effort. This is no less true in cause-driven work than it is in any other profession.

“Nonprofit leadership roles are exciting opportunities to make a positive difference,” said Mark Tercek, who left Goldman Sachs to become president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. “But it’s not easy. The objectives are more complex, it’s harder to measure results, and it’s harder to raise capital. It also requires a different management style. In many cases, private sector executives who switch to the nonprofit world have the potential to develop a more consensus-based style and to discover new avenues to raise capital and measure results. I think these are good things, but it can be challenging.”

Stefka Fanchi, a state director with Habitat for Humanity, adds, “Our vision as an organization is to eliminate poverty housing off the face of the earth. That’s a built-in disappointment for me, because I’m probably never going to reach that goal. You’ve got to be okay with the fact that you might be working your butt off striving for something that people have been working on for centuries and that you may not be the one to solve it. I think a lot of people get burned out and frustrated because they’re not making the impact they want to, and the victories can feel small. But one of the greatest things about my job is that I’ve got a lot of leeway to try new things, come up with innovative solutions to problems, and just do them. There’s no flagpole I have to run up and down for three years to get permission from everybody. If people think it’s a good idea, I find somebody to fund it, and just do it. I love that.”

One young woman told us why she joined Americorps and what she gained from the experience: “I don’t do this work because it’s the only thing I can or want to do. There are a million things out there that I could spend my time on. I just don’t want to be a hypocrite.”

Copyright (c) 2015 by Jeffrey W. Pryor and Alexandra Mitchell