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Not for profit and social entrepreneurship

This website has so far had a lot of information for those aiming for corporate and banking careers to maximise their earnings, and I am very happy to now expand the scope and start a series on careers that have the potential to be more personally rewarding, such as careers in not for profits and (social) entrepreneurship.

Is it for you?

The best indicator if a career in not for profits/social entrepreneurship/ international development is for you is if you are…

  • looking for meaning: for some of us, creating powerpoint chart and drawing a high salary may be all we need, but if you have that nagging feeling that you want to do something more with your life than just make money and help increase corporate profits, the not for profit field might be more personally rewarding
  • flexible and adventurous: you will need to be open to change and be okay about switching from one temporary position to the next, as well as potentially relocate to countries with very different standard or living and cultures
  • sociable: more than any more structured corporate jobs, not for profit jobs are very often allocated based on personal relationships, and it is very helpful to have a strong personal network and the ability to make friends and access valuable information. Networking skills are extremely important for success in this field.

The $$$ factor…

Obviously, you are unlikely to choose a career in not for profit to get rich quick, but it is still important to consider if it is a viable career choice and does not depend on a partner’s income. How can you work in NGOs or charities and still be financially independent?

One way is to get private sector work experience first, since higher managerial positions for experiences professionals in charities and NGOs tend to be well remunerated. It is particularly the entry level positions that are often filled with volunteers and interns, so make sure to volunteer/intern while you are a student so that you have built up enough skills to land a paid position when you graduate.


Professionals working in NGOs and charities abroad tend to earn more than those working in their home country, but such expat jobs are highly sought after and also depend on your prior experience, particular skills or your personal network. But the main take-away should be that a career in NGOs and social entrepreneurship can be self-sustaining and viable, even if you should not expect to get rich.

Lifestyle and the lady factor

Lifestyle varies widely depending on the organisation you join and how much effort you put into it yourself. I’d say you would mostly join this field out of passion, not because of lifestyle or money, at least this shouldn’t be your primary motivation.

How to get in

Given how wide the field is, there are many different paths. The first choice you will face is if you want to work locally or internationally. Locally, your best bet is to set up a social enterprise yourself or join one near you whose cause you feel passionate about. It is advisable to get involved while you’re still at school or university and don’t face financial pressure, so that you can build up experience for future paid positions. Locally, one crucial function is fundraising. Some build up experience doing this for their college during studies. The management functions in larger NGOs can often be filled by people with previous work experience in industry – many ex-consultants end up in management and strategy roles within NGOs. If you’re passionate about social enterprises, then starting out in business can seem like a detour, but it can speed up things later as you might be able to start in a higher position even with only 3 years business experience. It is important to be involved as early as possible so that you have experience and a network.

Careers in international development are different, as requirements of the societies you might serve are different. It is important that you build up a skill that is useful internationally. Two very useful fields of study are medicine/healthcare and engineering. They would equip you with skills that you can put to use even if you lack local language skills. As a doctor, you could work abroad with organisations such as Doctors without Borders. To give you an idea of how engineers can work in developing countries, explore the work of amazing MIT professor Amy Smith, founder of the D-Lab.

Other skills needed could be agricultural or environmental (marine biology, water conservation, deforestation…), as well as teaching. Language skills make finding a job in international development much easier as well! There is a very strong trend to employ mostly locals, as they have the local insights, contacts and credibility, and international organizations increasingly use expats mostly for managerial oversight function, so if you have a background in social sciences, another useful skill is project monitoring/impact assessment (for example, knowing how to carry out an impact assessment for entrepreneurship training or health promotion programs).

1 comment… add one
  • Joysy John March 31, 2012, 7:16 PM

    Excellent post giving an overview on whether a career in social entrepreneurship is for you! Students interested in this space should check out Ashoka, Ogunte, On Purpose and Emerge Venture Labs. There are ways to do internships and work with other non-profits or social entrepreneurs to build some experience.

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