By Dan King and Mark Guterman
There is an “emptiness” that pervades many careers and workplaces today — a thirst for meaning, a yearning for a worklife that is more than just a financial equation. As career coaches, we witness firsthand the unhappiness of people who, in order to acquire funds to live, sacrifice their values and beliefs, hoping that somehow they will achieve success and happiness along the way. Their stories have one thing in common: “something is missing.”
At the same time, many leaders and managers, whether in Fortune 500 companies or small businesses, are striving to create a progressive culture, to develop and retain top talent, but often without the insight to do so in a way that satisfies the innermost needs of their employees. Amidst reengineering, globalization and 24/7 technologies, employees often feel “imprisoned,” making their work seem like a “life sentence.”
In the six years since the events of 9/11, many people have refocused their priorities and taken actions to change their work and life – by working or traveling less, trading income for more free time, essentially looking for greater purpose and meaning in their careers.
And more recently, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the images of the disaster on the gulf coast prompted many people to ask, “What can I do?” In times like these, we often feel powerless to help. Sure we can donate money, but for many people it’s not enough. They experience a call to action.
The desire to contribute to something worthwhile spans all ages and spectrums of the workforce. It frequently remains unspoken, but it is there – in the frustration, in the anger, and sometimes tears. Even when the silence is broken, it is not always articulated in simple, straightforward ways, but rather in vague, conceptual terms like “contribution,” “purpose,” and “legacy.” But one thing is clear: the pursuit of a higher purpose is embedded within the career aspirations of growing numbers of people today.
People with a sense of “mission” often find their way into non-profit organizations. Although the salary you make at a non-profit is unlikely to ever be as high as what you might earn in a similar role in the private sector, you can still make a good living. And these organizations often accomplish extraordinary things that literally change lives. You can be a part of that.
However, to characterize non-profits in this manner is an oversimplification. The range of organizations represented — from social service, political, international, environmental, arts, museums, professional associations to research foundations – means that the work is not only about ministering service to the needy or solving all the world’s major problems. Such perceptions about working for a non-profit are naïve – and don’t always match with reality.
If you think that non-profit organizations always need people so badly they’ll take anybody, think again. Despite the common notion that non-profit jobs are easy to get, many non-profits work within a tight budget. With such limited time and resources, they need to take special care to hire the right person. You may be the only one who knows how to do your particular job function – and there may be no one to take you under their wing to groom you for future positions. You’ll need to seek out mentors in other ways, through professional associations and groups.
Likewise, the sentiment that the culture of a non-profit, by definition, will be friendly, supportive and accepting may be a misnomer. Fulfilling work and a camaraderie among coworkers can result from a non-profit career, but work is still work. Personality quirks and office politics can still find their way into noble endeavors.
Meaningful work, however, is not solely the domain of non-profits — many private sector jobs can satisfy the core values you want to achieve through your work. A careful alignment of your purpose, interests and values with the right organization can ensure a very meaningful career path. Every job requires trade-offs — and money may not be the most important consideration. I see people who make 200K+ who hate their jobs – and I see people making 40K who love their jobs. What makes the difference? Finding something you’re passionate about – something that aligns with professional life with your personal interests and values. Can you really put a price on that?
To learn more about the types of opportunities found in the non-profit sector, take a look at www.idealist.org, a site providing non-profit and volunteer information on more than 29,000 organizations in 153 countries – or www.non-profitjobscoop.org, a collaboration of non-profit management centers from across the United States.