The fastest-growing sector in our economy has no career path. In fact, a survey of young people found that only one quarter could name a single business in this sector. The recent book by Jeff Pryor and Alexandra Mitchell, “Compassionate Careers: Making a Living by Making a Difference,” discusses this sector: nonprofits and other cause- or mission-based organizations. The book offers stories of those who have found their place in this sector and talks about the barriers and opportunities to achieving success with a purpose.
Compassionate Careers offers great insights for nonprofits, but it also has important implications for higher education community engagement. Although we are preparing people for a variety of careers, certainly many of the students who participate in community projects and service learning during their education may find their spark or passion through these opportunities and choose a career in the public or nonprofit sector with the goal of making a difference.
Why it’s important
In the first decade of the new millennium, employment and wages in the for-profit sector fell, while opportunities and wagers in the public and nonprofit sectors rose. The largest gains were in the nonprofit sector with a 30% increase in salary and a 17% increase in positions. In fact, nonprofits now make up 10% of the US workforce at 13.7 million employees. With increasing pressure on higher education to prepare graduates for specific career paths, there is a tendency to push back and point out that we are preparing students for much more than that. While that is true, it’s also important to talk about the ways in which we can prepare students for viable careers of passion and purpose.
There are many barriers and misconceptions that hold people back from seriously considering “compassionate” careers and this book covers them well and offers new ideas for tackling challenges and perceiving success. Many believe nonprofits offer easier work and are less demanding than private employers. This is not inherently accurate and in fact nonprofit workplace cultures vary as much as private business cultures do. Students who are exposed to a variety of nonprofit settings can get a better sense of where they might fit in.
Of course, the term “nonprofit” certainly implies that those who choose this path are destined for lives of poverty. As the book points out, however, it is possible to make comfortable and competitive wages in the nonprofit sector. There are also programs such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness that help make choosing a compassionate career feasible for people. Again, the more exposure students get to nonprofit leaders, the more they will see what is possible. Financial aid offices should also be familiar with programs that help students looking at these careers find resources for their education.
Finally, family pressures often inhibit young people from seriously considering public service and nonprofit work. Many parents are understandably anxious for their child to find lucrative and sustainable work if for no other reason than getting them out of the basement! Students need to be empowered to consider how they will define success and to be able to show concerned family members examples of those who have found financial success and valued their purpose and passion. Compassionate Careers is a book that offers such examples of undeniably successful and interesting people who have found their way to the nonprofit sector. These examples inspire and offer critical lessons to anyone considering this type of work.
What can we learn
Only 4% of 2,500 nonprofit staff surveyed said a teacher or counselor ever mentioned careers in nonprofits and philanthropy to them. Only 2% found their jobs through career services. Only 5% were actively recruited to their field. In the last few years, several examples of community engagement offices linked with career services have popped up in Iowa and across the country. These models could provide a great way of helping students to turn community experiences into new ideas for their futures. As we plan future community engagement it’s important to think about how the nonprofit staff, leaders, and volunteers with whom we are working can be role models and mentors for students. Private business has done this with internships with great success and it could be a much more explicit goal of community engagement.
The book ends with a step-by-step guide to getting started on the path to a compassionate career that could serve as a useful reflection tool for anyone unsure about their next career step. It also offers a list of resources to expand your knowledge base about the types of careers and organizations out there. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in the book’s foreword, “I will not fool you and say this is easy. People who choose this path may wrestle with many challenges, yet the rewards are countless and unquestionable.” Learn more about “Compassionate Careers” and it’s authors.