Sector Switching: Navigating the Transition from the Private Sector to the Social Impact Sector

This post was written by John Troy, founder of WorkMonger and Fuqua MBA 2009 alumnus, in September 2015. He is also a former sector switcher who remains thrilled he made the transition to the social impact sector. Learn more and stay connected with WorkMonger on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Over the last 6 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of people looking to switch from the private sector to an organization where social impact, not profit, is the primary bottom line.  I, too, switched from the private sector to a non-profit and as a non-profit director I frequently hired sector switchers. But navigating the transition from the private sector is difficult and not for everyone. How do you know if making the jump is right for you?

Below are 3 lessons I’ve learned along the way:

1) Switch Only for the Right Reasons

There is a myth that the social impact sector is an easier lifestyle with fewer hours and a less demanding work environment.

I’m not sure how this myth started but it has persisted.  What some fail to realize is that the leaders of social impact organizations are no less relentless in achieving their missions than private sector employers are in maximizing profit.  Long hours, challenging work environments, demanding bosses – these characteristics are driven by an organization’s leadership and culture, not by whether it is for-profit or non-profit.  I’ve worked with non-profits where employees worked hours comparable to the 80+ hour work weeks I averaged as an investment banking analyst at Citigroup.  And I’ve worked with easy-going, relaxed, 9 to 5 non-profits.  The private sector also has both types of organizations (and everything in between).  So don’t make the switch for work/life balance.  Switch because you care about the mission and impact of the organization and you are passionate about using your skills to make a difference.

2) You Probably Won’t Get Rich but You Can Earn a Good Living in the Social Impact Sector

We all know people who say they would love to work in the social impact sector if the pay weren’t so terrible.  Well, there is only a little bit of truth to this one!  Top salaries in the private sector are, of course, far higher than top salaries in the social impact sector.  So if your goal is to make millions, you’re in the wrong place.  But we’re not all living in poverty either! You can absolutely make an impact with your career and make a living at the same time.  There are people in the sector making $80k, $120k, $200k or more.  While working in the social impact sector will likely require some financial sacrifice, you can still live comfortably while also making a powerful impact on society.  And that’s a form of compensation, too.

3) Be Confident but Humble

Be confident in the skills you will bring into the social impact sector. The sector needs talented people who have scaled businesses, developed successful strategies, marketed new products, turned around companies, negotiated contracts, and built budgets. But be careful – confidence in your abilities and skills must be coupled with humility and respect for those who have been tackling these challenges far longer than you.  Don’t assume private sector companies are better run. Don’t assume all the “smart kids” took jobs in the private sector. Don’t assume you understand all of the challenges, many systemic, that social impact organizations face.

Now here’s the catch. Not every social impact organization will know how to utilize an executive with an MBA and 5 years’ finance experience. The key is finding the right organization and role that matches your skills, experience, and organizational culture preferences.  I recently founded a company, WorkMonger, that can help you with that process.

Our vision at WorkMonger is meaningful, personalized work for all.  We’re working to transform the way the social impact sector hires and the way people find meaningful work uniquely fit for them.  Through WorkMonger, social impact jobseekers complete a robust candidate profile, including typical attributes such as education, skills, and work experience, but also less tangible attributes such as their preferences for an organization’s mission, values, work environment, and organizational culture.  Through our proprietary matching process, WorkMonger utilizes your comprehensive profile to match you with employers where you will be well positioned to succeed.

The WorkMonger process is working.  Over our first few months, primarily through our networks and word of mouth, we’ve had over 1000 jobseekers complete a profile.  Hundreds of recommended job matches have been shared, numerous interviews have taken place, job offers have been extended and accepted, and people have already begun their new jobs that uniquely combine their passion, personality, and performance abilities.  From here, we are working to scale quickly, with a goal of becoming the predominant means through which social impact organizations source great talent within 5 years.

Should you switch to the social impact sector?  Only you know whether it is the right decision.  But the needs we serve are great and the talent pool is small for the challenges at hand – so we need more talented people to step up and give the sector a try.  I’ll never forget the rush I got when I left investment banking to become the Finance Director at a nonprofit.  It was the right decision for me – perhaps it is for you, too.