01/10/2014 03:26 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2014

So You Want to Save the World? Part 3: Take a Pay Cut

This article follows on from two previous posts available here.

Fast forward two, three, five or 10 years into your career and you have skills -- you've worked in the private sector for example, doing finance, marketing, HR, etc -- then great, the non-profit world needs you!

First things first though. Stop looking at the policy job listings, and stay close to your job family. I tell people you can't change specialty, country, sector, and level of responsibility all at once; if you're lucky you can change two but aiming for one is realistic. You have to accept this as one move among others. You'll be able to change the other dimensions at another point -- once you're in an organization, or even in the sector, lateral moves and promotions are much easier. When I moved from management consultancy to my first job in the non-profit sector, I stayed in London and I was still working as an internal consultant doing post-merger integration. I wanted to travel and do more content, but that was not where my skills and usefulness lay. After 18 months, I changed role within my organization and was travelling most of the time to Asia, the Middle East and Haiti, but still the content was lacking. When I changed jobs from London to New York, I was able to take a content-focused role, but my level of responsibility and management initially went down.

And of course from the private sector and even sometimes between NGOs, you have to be ready for a large pay cut. Every time I've changed organizations, I've taken a 40 percent pay cut, returning each time roughly to my original salary as an entry-level management consultant. Luckily, after some time, I got promoted with some decent salary rises and the increased level of responsibility has kept me interested and afloat!

You have to avoid pricing yourself out of the market though -- I have post MBA friends who say they really want to work in non-profit but can't possibly afford to earn less than $100-110k because of mortgage, business school debt, etc. Then, once you have kids, and you want to put them in a vaguely decent school, I gather $100k is not enough at all. That's fine, but if you set that bar from the beginning you may never make the move until 30 years from now, when you have the mortgage paid for and the kids' college funds settled. That's an absolutely fine approach; if you look at the chairmen, CEOs or presidents of large foundations or NGOs, you indeed find a good number who spent 20 or 30 years doing very well in business and then moving much later into the non-profit world. If you want to move now or soon, you're just going to have to be realistic as to what that means in terms of lifestyle -- whether it's going to live in Sudan for two years, or deep in Brooklyn on $50k when all your friends now earn $100k.