Eight tips to help you decide on a career in CSR or in the nonprofit sector

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Traditionally, those who wanted to have a job that made an impact on the world would look for work in the nonprofit sector. Today, while this is still a viable option, others are looking at whether working in corporate social responsibility (CSR) might achieve the same impact.

We talked with a group of professionals who have worked in both sectors to find out what they have done and what they would advise.

Their own stories

Heather Mak is a manager, sustainability for Deloitte Canada. She says, “When I was younger, I volunteered a lot for social causes, but as an undergrad, the choice was polarized: you could work for bank or as an activist. There was nothing in between.” After finishing an undergraduate degree in marketing, she began working for a consumer goods company where she found an unexpected inspiration: WalMart. Seeing WalMart set audacious and impactful goals in terms of energy and sourcing, Mak was inspired to return to school to study environmental and social sustainability. She says, “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. But, businesses can use their scale and voice to make changes that can affect the everyday lives of people.”

While Mak could also see herself possibly having chosen a career in the nonprofit sector, she says her work in the corporate sector “logically made sense because my background was in consumer goods and I understood that environment.”

Jennifer Murtagh is today the chief strategy officer for the BC Women’s Hospital and Health Care Foundation, but she began her career in sports marketing, eventually working in marketing for the Vancouver Canucks. From an early age, Murtagh had volunteered in the nonprofit sector and planned to continue doing so, but says, “I was a type A personality and I had a preconceived notion that the nonprofit sector moved at a slower pace than I did, that they didn’t have the same business acumen and processes, that sometimes they wallowed in mediocrity.”

It was when she participated in a leadership development program through the Minerva Foundation that she began examining her own core values for the first time. She realized her values didn’t align with her work as much as they did with the nonprofit sector. She began exploring new options, eventually taking a role as the executive director for the Minerva Foundation, before moving to her current position. While she considered work in CSR, she found that jobs in the field were few and far between in Vancouver. She also realized that she had a strong desire to work on issues of social justice and inclusion in a grassroots way, rather than at arms’-length.

James Powell is the director, cause marketing at the SickKids Foundation. When people ask him why he chose to work in the nonprofit sector, he says, “I didn’t. I consider myself a builder. I look for great opportunities, brands doing incredible things to change world.” These brands have included both nonprofit and for-profit ventures. He says, “Some argue corporations are all bad and nonprofits are all good, but we don’t live in a black and white world. Our job is to find a way to partner with each other for the greater good.”

Powell also points to the opportunity for corporations to do good, noting that while the Edelman Trust Barometer shows that trust in government, religion, media and even NGOs is dropping, trust in Canadian companies is the highest of any companies in the world. “I position to our corporate partners that they have a responsibility to do good. Their position of power and privilege gives them the opportunity and responsibility to be that change that everyone wants to see.”

Sarah Saso, the executive director of the Canadian National Exhibition Foundation, says, “I was designed and raised to do something that matters.” After going to school for theatre, music and business administration, Saso’s work with an opera company exposed her to the heads of large corporations and made her wonder about their passion for purpose-driven work in collaboration with the nonprofit sector. She began to see her own role as that of a translator: “Both nonprofits and businesses had problems to solve, in terms of their purpose and reason for being. I could coach nonprofits on what business was looking for, business on what nonprofits could provide, and how could they complement each other by partnering.” Her dream was to “get into the tower giving out money and to be a champion for the nonprofit sector from the business side.”

To this end, Saso embarked on extensive professional development, with everything from “taking a meeting every week with people who do what I want to do” to “reading every book I could get my hands on” to practical training in PR, event management, agency work, sports and event marketing, web development, project development and marketing courses. She also did a lot of volunteering, serving on committees and running events as a way of both making a difference and understanding what different organizations do. After 18 years on that side of the table, she decided to take on a new role in an organization whose values system that mirrors her own, where there was an opportunity to build.

Eight tips to help you decide between CSR and nonprofit

1. Know your values and talents. Murtagh says, “There are different ways to make an impact and it’s very individual so it’s important to be really diligent in knowing your core values and talent. Inherently, the skills you had as a child are what you’re good at as an adult.” Saso adds, “Think about what skills you want to develop.”

2. Do your research. Powell observes, “We spend more time shopping for pair of jeans than we do in researching a potential job. It’s not just about going for a job and winning it, but talking to those you’d report to, those who’ve worked there before, and checking out an organization’s social media. It’s also about listening to your gut feeling when you walk into the door or when you sit with leadership. I’ve worked with organizations with an amazing why and terrible who’s.”

3. Take a meeting a week. Powell suggests, “Someone might want to take a role in marketing but there are 200 different job titles in marketing. You need to get out there to figure out what you want.” Saso adds, “You might think they have an idea about what a certain role does, but do more investigation. It’s not all glamour.” Powell recommends Ten Thousand Coffees  and other networking conversations as ways of understanding both organizations and particular jobs and roles.

4. Find an organization whose value system mirrors your own, says Saso, and where you have an opportunity to build.

5. Invest in your own professional development. Like Saso, figure out what skills and knowledge you need to make a difference in whichever sector you choose to work, and pursue it formally or informally.

6. Ask yourself: Do you feel good about getting up in the morning and doing your work? Is it something that matters to you? Saso says, “Start with what do you really want to do, where you can have an impact, what role would have meaningful opportunities for you.”

7. You don’t have to quit your day job. Saso suggests, “Don’t give up everything to take a nonprofit job – get engaged with a nonprofit that resonates with values and test it by volunteering or getting on a committee. Skills-based volunteering is so needed.”

8. There’s more than 9 to 5. Powell counsels, “We all want to make a difference, and we think we need to solve that at work. We can but we don’t necessarily have to. We talk a big game but somewhat selfishly – how do I make the world a better place but it has to have a big paycheque. In reality, ask yourself: what are you doing in your own life to make a difference? You can do that by being a parent, through a church group, or by volunteering. I’ve put undue pressure on having the job that does it all, but you don’t have to.”

Editor's Note: Get more information on the differences 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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