Recently Seth Godin and I were interviewed for an article posted on Monster.com. The question was, "In one of the worst job markets in decades, many (particularly young people) are turning to nonprofits to find work, but is devoting a year or two to the greater good -- and putting off any serious earning -- a wise career move??"
While both Seth and I agree that working for a period in a non-profit can be a very effective (and fulfilling) career strategy, it would appear from our answers that we disagree on how best to approach this decision.
"If you want to develop marketing skills, for example, it's probably easier to do that in one of the larger nonprofit organizations," I was quoted as saying. Alternatively, Seth responded "Your instinct will be to work for the biggest organization, where they'll tell you what to do. But to get real experience, look for the most shoestring organization you can find, and change everything." I felt it might be valuable to elaborate on these two differing strategies.
One of the keys to managing a successful career is to understand that there are unique career phases, each with different objectives (and each requiring differing strategies). In the most simplistic of terms, the cadence of a successful career is to build up your potential in phase 1 (roughly age 20-30), to cash your potential in on valuable experiences in phase 2 (30-40), and to cash in your valuable experiences on compensation in phase 3 (cash, fulfilling work, etc.) in phase 3 (40+). I elaborate greatly on these three phases in my book, The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers, but this summary will suffice for this discussion.
In phase 1, your objective is to learn as much as possible, and thus build up your perceived potential in the marketplace. This includes attaining undergraduate and graduate degrees, and also learning specific skills through training and development programs (for both education and training, pedigree directly impacts perceived potential). This also includes learning about your self - what are you good at, and what are you really passionate about.
While there is great value (not to mention fun) in working for a small non-profit where you have tremendous control and responsibility, this can be a dangerous move while in the early years of your career. When you are young, companies are very willing to invest in building your potential - through mentoring, formal training and exposing you to best practices. Larger organizations certainly have their downsides (like bureaucracy), but most have figured out the fundamentals of how things get done, and they can teach you the skills essential to any successful career. With much smaller companies, this knowledge transfer is not nearly as certain - you are often left alone to figure things out.
For example, back in the dot-com boom days of the late 90's, many young people shunned large company jobs in favor of start-ups. When things collapsed, there were thousands of people in the job market touting how they had been a CEO, or CMO at the age of 22. The problem is that almost none of this experience is translatable to other companies - those with larger company experience were almost always hired first. To use an analogy, companies want young people who have developed complex computer skills much more than they want someone who worked alone to create their own simple calculator. They hire young employees who have learned how to use a wheel, not those who spent their time trying to reinvent it.
I agree with Seth that rolling up your sleeves in a small non-profit can be a great strategy, but I would caution on doing this early in a career. Working with a larger company while still in your twenties will build valuable skills as well as your pedigree, value that can be translated in any number of future career moves.
Build you value early. Cash in on it down the road.