Why you usually shouldn’t work at non-profits straight after graduation

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I recently gave a TEDx talk at Cambridge University, where I argue that, most of the time, graduates who want to have a big social impact shouldn’t go straight to work at a charity:

Often working at a nonprofit is seen as the standard path if you want to make a difference. But based on our career framework, it doesn’t look like it’s the best option most of the time, especially early in your career. Here’s why:

  1. Most nonprofits have little impact
    A significant fraction of social interventions don’t work, and this means that the nonprofits who implement these interventions don’t have any impact.

  2. Poor skill development
    Nonprofits are usually small and have a shoestring budget, which means there’s little room for training or career development compared to organisations in the for-profit sector.

  3. Poor option value
    It’s much easier to transition from the corporate sector into nonprofits than vice versa, so if you want to try both, it’s better to start outside of nonprofits, then enter later.

As I’ve found, my views on this aren’t idiosyncratic. I’m in the process of interviewing the heads of highly effective non-profits, asking for what they’d advise socially motivated graduates to do straight after university. Once of the questions I asked was “Suppose you could advise a graduate in the humanities from a good university, who is happy to pursue any career path in the short-term, but would like to work in international development non-profits in the long-term, what concretely would you advise them to do?” And then I asked the same question for graduates from quantitative subject.

Here’s Paul Niehaus, Director (US) of GiveDirectly:

We look for people who have performed exceptionally well in an elite organization. We don’t necessarily assume this will mean a private-sector organization, but in practice almost all our hires come direct from the private sector — McKinsey, Bridgewater, Cravath, etc….

For either person my default advice would be to get an entry-level job in the org with the best reputation for performance & mentorship they can, and I’d consider doing a startup if there’s an opportunity to work with exceptional people and take on meaningful responsibility.

For the quantitative person I’d consider finance jobs even if the mentorship was less great, and I’d also consider and graduate school in STEM, economics, or statistics.

For either person I would keep in touch with international development by following results from research (e.g. J-PAL news) and consider vacations in developing countries, and I would talk to people in nonprofits about their jobs. I’d also question the premise of looking for work in a nonprofit, as I think there’s a very good chance you could be more impactful in a for-profit Bottom of the Pyramid business.

Here’s Rob Mather, Executive Director of Against Malaria Foundation:

I am not sure I would advise humanities and quantitative graduates differently. There are of course many ways to make an impact in the not-for-profit area and many very different paths individuals could follow. I would offer two thoughts. First, it is a good idea to spend some time before starting a career (e.g. university, holidays) or early in a career, in and around a not-for-profit environment of interest to gain an understanding of the sort of work involved, challenges faced and whether you like it. That might be several months working or volunteering in a developing country or in a soup-kitchen or crisis centre closer to home. Second, gaining and honing business skills (e.g. project management, sales, marketing, leadership, effective team work, working across cultures) can be important for ‘getting things done’ in the not-for-profit environment and doing so efficiently. Time spent in a ‘traditional’ for-profit career can build key skills that can be a strong basis for a later move into a not-for-profit. Many of the particularly impressive people I have met in the not-for-profit sector have had ten or more years working in the business sector beforehand.

So when should you work at a nonprofit? The best nonprofits are hugely impactful, so despite the reservations I state above, I believe that if you have the opportunity to work at a well-run charity working on a particularly important cause it can be a fantastic option, especially if you’ll get good training too, or if you’re mid career.

Read more on how to set up effective nonprofits within international development.