CSR vs. Nonprofit: Which is the right career fit for you?

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There’s a growing interest in making a difference in the world. Heather Mak, manager, sustainability for Deloitte Canada, puts it this way:

“We’ve reached a point of uncertainty and disruption – you can look no further at the global political situation, and even when you look at this year and the extreme weather events coming from it being the hottest summer on record globally - it’s frightening. There’s so much to be done. Everyone has to make a living but it’s great to do it in a way that’s impactful to society.”

In fact, multiple surveys show that emerging generations are more committed to making a difference in their careers than previous generations – the 2014 Millennial Impact Report found that 94% like using their skills to benefit a cause, while in a 2017 Millennials in the Workplace Survey, 84% reported that “knowing that I am helping to make a positive difference in the world is more important to me than professional recognition”. Additionally, 45% of respondents in a Net Impact survey said they would take a 15% pay cut to make more of a difference.

The question is how people of all generations will make that difference. Traditionally, those with this mentality have chosen to work in the nonprofit sector. While this is still a viable option for many, others are looking at whether working in corporate social responsibility (CSR) might achieve the same impact.

First of all, what is CSR?

Most of us likely know and understand the nonprofit sector, also known as the third sector, which, along with the public sector, has traditionally been responsible for social good and public benefit. According to Mark Horoszowski, cofounder of MovingWorlds, in the 1960s the private sector began getting involved in this area of responsibility when “companies started to create ‘corporate responsibility’ initiatives to offset some of the damage they were causing.”

Over time, this has evolved, although even today the term is a broad concept with many possible interpretations. At the core, however, “Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a self-regulating business model that helps a company be socially accountable — to itself, its stakeholders, and the public.” Companies not only seek to make a profit but give back to society by taking responsibility for their impact on the environment and people — what is called a triple bottom line. While increasingly this is becoming a necessary part of a company’s brand as a good corporate citizen, it also offers benefits to society, blurring the lines around who does good and how.

In an effort to help professionals think about where they can make the most impact in their careers, we talked with people who have worked in both sectors to find out how they would compare the two options.

Direct or indirect impact

Jennifer Murtagh, chief strategy officer for the BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre Foundation, says it’s important to figure out whether you need to work on the grassroots side — the nonprofit sector — or whether you might be more effective at a distance. Danisha Baloo of BCG Bigs in Edmonton chose to work for directly for a nonprofit, saying, “I was a grateful recipient of the services provided. I know first-hand the difference charities make.” By contrast, Sarah Saso, now executive director of the Canadian National Exhibition Foundation, says her dream was to “get into the tower giving out money and to become a champion for the nonprofit sector from the business side.”

Murtagh contrasts her own experience where, as she says, “I need to live and breathe the work, to see the people who benefit from the money,” with that of a friend who left a career in investment banking to work with people in the inner city, only to realize that her skillset and passion was better suited in making money and sitting on nonprofit boards. UK-based 80000 Hours calls this “earning to give” and lists it among a variety of indirect ways that people can make a difference beyond working directly for nonprofits.

Scaleable impact

Jerome Tennille says, “I switched from nonprofit to working in CSR for a global company because I fundamentally believe that some of the greatest positive change in the world will be achieved through the engine of capitalism.” In Canada, the nonprofit sector contributes 8.1% to the GDP as compared with 5.4% in the US, but as Tennille points out, the for-profit sector makes up the vast majority of the GDP (80% of the US GDP) and only comprises 5% of all donations to nonprofits, “so it’s important it be used for good.”

Mak agrees. “I admire the Greenpeaces of the world and their singular objective to raise awareness and make on the ground changes for the benefit of the environment. Their voice is necessary to drive forward these issues. Businesses exist to offer products and services, but by providing more sustainable products and services, they can do so at scale in a way that affects the everyday lives of people.”

On the question of scale, somewhat tongue in cheek, Benjamin Todd of 80000 Hours argues that Superman “may be the greatest example of underutilised talent in all of fiction. It was a blunder to spend his life fighting crime one case at a time; if he’d thought a little more creatively, he could have done far more good. How about delivering vaccines to everyone in the world at superspeed? That would have eradicated most infectious disease, saving hundreds of millions of lives.”

Work environment

There are a wide variety of differences between typical work environments in the nonprofit sector and working in CSR. Mak observes, “In the nonprofit sector, you get to work with a lot of people who have the same aim as you – everyone shares similar values and mindset. At a very large company where CSR is an arm of the company, a lot of the work is in persuasion and change management and selling your story to senior people. Not everyone necessarily believes that there is a triple bottom line.”

Saso says that while some large corporations have large CSR departments, most may have only one person, although she notes that that person often works closely with a wide variety of departments within an organization. James Powell, director, cause marketing at the SickKids Foundation, who has worked in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, says, “One thing I’ve experienced — sometimes as frustration — is that in the nonprofit world, you don’t have same resources and structures, and you need to be more nimble. In for-profit, there’s a team for that. In nonprofit, you have to do it all.” He argues that “It’s helpful to start out in the for-profit world to see those different structures, how systems work. That gives you a good grounding and helps you learn the proper ways of doing things.”

But the DIY nature of the nonprofit world was precisely what attracted a colleague of Saso’s: “She got a hands-on opportunity to do so much she would never have gotten a chance to do in corporate. The nonprofit sector is a faster, more forgiving environment. You can then take that opportunity to the for-profit world.” Ottawa-based nonprofit administrative coordinator Cara Curtis agrees: “I wanted to work on a bit of everything during my work days – a nonprofit with a smaller staff gives me that chance.”

Although Murtagh’s first nonprofit role made more money than her previous corporate job, many nonprofits use non-traditional means of compensation, including flexible and part-time work. It was the latter that attracted communications specialist Karen Majerly to the nonprofit sector. “I get to help deserving organizations and it suits my schedule.”

Impact of geography

While data on this factor is anecedotal, the reality is that Canada’s 170,000 nonprofits are located across the country, while the majority of CSR roles tend to be limited and centralized, chiefly in Toronto. While Murtagh was open to a CSR role after her experience in marketing, she focused on the nonprofit sector after recognizing that even in a large city such as Vancouver, there were only a limited number of CSR roles, especially senior roles.

Maybe you don’t have to choose

Increasingly, as for many of the people we talked to for this article, a choice between sectors doesn’t have to be made. As Mak says, “It’s an asset to move between sectors - a lot of the job is stakeholder engagement so the more you can relate and understand the realities of the people you are engaging with, the better.” Saso notes that in hiring staff in CSR she told her human resources department “I wanted to see people with nonprofit experience because their primary client would be nonprofits.” She also argues that the skills developed in a nonprofit are useful on the other side of the table.

Horoszowski also points out that any job can be made impactful. He suggests looking for ways that sustainability and equality initiatives can make a positive impact toward the business goals, and proposing ways of adding impact initiatives to your work.

Finally, keep in mind that, as Todd says, “the most effective approach for you will be something you enjoy, that motivates you, and is a good fit for your skills.” He adds, “We sometimes come across people tempted to do a job they’d hate in order to have more impact. That’s likely a bad idea, since they’ll just burn out. Their example could also discourage others from doing good. An outstanding charity worker will likely do more good than a mediocre engineer earning to give, and the reverse is also true.”

Editor's Note: Get more tips from the interviewees on how to choose between the two career paths in our companion article.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

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