Seeking for a higher purpose by working for an NGO

More and more of my clients come to realize that after having been successful in their corporate career, they want to get out of the race of getting higher up in the corporate ladder, earning more money to spend it on things that finally do not fulfill their higher needs. When going through the process of self-discovery they often conclude that they would like to strive for purpose, which has a positive impact on the planet and the society.  Many of them conclude that this means for them to move from a corporate sector to a non-profit one.

While looking at the numbers, every year the NGO’s are becoming more sought after organizations to work for. This also means that the competition between applicants that want to get into NGO’s is becoming more intense, which many do not realize when starting to think of such a career move. This obviously does not mean that it is not possible or should be ruled out as an option, not at all.

To know more on how such a career change could be done successfully I want to share an interview with you, which I had with a very passionate and successful person in the NGO sector, Virginie Baggen.

How to move from a corporate to a non-profit sector?

Is it at all possible to get a job in an NGO without previous experience in this sector? And if so what makes you a successful candidate? These and other questions I have asked to Virginie Baggen, a fellow coach and a senior manager with over 20 years NGO experience of which 16 years at one of the most known NGO’s, being Greenpeace.

Dorota: I am sure what you have to say is so valuable for many people looking for a career change in the more purpose driven direction.

Virginie: Before we start focusing the interview on NGO’s I would like to mention that there currently are many amazing things happening in the for-profit sector as well. If you look for example at the whole green start-up scene, this is a booming new segment sprouting. But also within the big corporations there are many ‘sustainability’ initiatives that use their knowledge, technology and network for a higher social purpose.

So if you are looking for a career change in order to bring more purpose in your work, I highly recommend you to look in the for-profit sector as well as the non-profit sector.

Dorota: Yes this is a great point Virginie. Especially if this will increase your success of getting hired due to the fit it has with your background or existing professional network.

Virginie: I would like to demystify in advance the whole concept that once you work for an NGO you de facto will find your purpose. For sure it is great to work for an organization that you feel completely aligned with. But don’t forget that NGO’s are organizations too, with very often the same dynamics that you have come across in other corporations.

For example, you also have to deal with politics, and people trying to reach the top because they are very ambitious. Many people who want to swap the corporate sector for the non-profit one imagine that the culture of competition and politics is going to be very different or much less. That is not necessarily the reality.

Dorota: Yet, if someone would still insist that she or he would love to move to the NGO sector. Do you think it is feasible? Do you think that someone with 15 years experience in the corporate sector can make the move to the non-profit organization?

Virginie: I have seen it happen, but I have to say there isn’t a big influx of people from the for-profit sector. I guess one of the reasons goes to the relevance of your work experience. If I wanted to get now into the banking sector there would surely be a certain bias in the recruitment towards applicants that have been not been in the banking industry. Someone would look at my CV and say there is not enough relevant work experience for you to work at the bank.

The big NGO’s are also run as efficiently and effectively as possible and would apply in essence the same logic. They do not have big budgets to invest in recruitment process, so as a consequence they want to avoid the risk of hiring the wrong candidate. They would also, most likely, need to invest more money in such a candidate in order to bring her/him up to speed as far as the specifics of the job and/or sector concerned. So you do not see this happening very often. But it does happen. It is not impossible, ‘if there is the will there is a way’.

Dorota: In the cases of the people who did get into the NGO sector, what did you observe that made it possible?

Virginie: So, where it happens most is in the non-core part of the NGO organization. Examples being people with an HR background or organization development background or for example finance. Those areas do not necessarily require very strong NGO expertise. Another area, which is quite ‘hot’ now, is social media. That type of expertise is not yet fully represented in NGO’s and is becoming extremely important when promoting new campaigns and reaching out to supporters.

If you look into core business areas such as campaigns (for example climate change) or development work (for example water sanitation projects), those areas require a very specific set of skills and knowledge, which is going to be difficult to have without the right experience.

So I definitely believe that it is possible to get into an NGO, for example if you are an HR expert. However, having in mind also what I said in the beginning of our interview, you need to ask yourself is it going to fulfill your purpose. As it is going to be for a large part the same job only in a different environment. An environment that is fighting for a good cause for sure, but you need to ask yourself is it enough for me to fulfill my purpose.

Dorota: Sure, you need to look into what is your purpose and if working for example in the finance department of a big international NGO will fulfill it. When I was thinking of my career change and looking for my purpose, I was also thinking first of becoming an auditor at, for example, an organization like UN. But I felt that this would not fully allow me to embrace my purpose. And this was because I didn’t want to be an auditor anymore, not even at the UN.

Virginie: That is why I think your work, as a coach is so important. To help people understand what their purpose is and how they can fulfill it in their work. There are many different ways of fulfilling your purpose.

Dorota: And if you look at the soft skills, what do you think are the most important ones for the candidates who want to make it into the NGO sector?

Virginie: I would say resilience, adaptability and cultural sensitivity.

Dorota: Let’s talk for a moment about entry-level jobs at NGO’s. How can you increase your chances of getting one?

Virginie: Volunteer! One of the easiest ways to put your foot in the door is to volunteer. Different NGO’s have different volunteering options. At Greenpeace you can become an activist. Just contact the local Greenpeace office and they will tell you more. For other organizations, like Doctor’s Without Borders, you can go on a mission and work in the countries that need most help like Syria, Haiti, Soudan and many more. People that have previous field experience (working in the countries) have much higher chances of getting hired in the offices of the NGO’s later on. They have gained first hand experience, which is extremely valuable.

Dorota: Ok, so volunteer! Let’s talk now for a moment about the type of people that work for NGO’s. Do you think it is a special ‘breed’?

Virginie: The way I want to describe them is passionate, outspoken, non-conformist, very intelligent, argumentative, strong willed, and even rebellious. Given my experience has been largely with Greenpeace, I am describing it from that framework mostly. They really believe deeply in the cause for which they are working. This is of course a good thing but can sometimes also be quite challenging. Meetings tend to be very passionate, people fight for their point of view; they fight for their cause.

These people are often facing difficult decisions they need to take. As there is never enough money, tough decisions need to be made on where resources are directed. Which projects do we support and which projects are phased out or not started? For example in the humanitarian sector they need to decide: Are we going to save people who are the most affected and are these the sickest ones or are we going to help people who have the highest chance of survival? These are impossibly tough decisions that have to be made and are made every day.

Also the work in the field can be very difficult. That is why I stopped working in the field. I noticed that in order to function I started to cut myself off from my feelings as it was a lot to take in, to see for example children suffering. I remember the ‘empty eyes’ in some field workers and also some journalists, of those who had seen it all. I didn’t want that to happen to me where I would freeze out my emotions continuously. That’s a big reason why I moved to the headquarters of an environmental organization. Though, I never say never and at times also remember the wonderful human connections I made when working in the field. So, who knows what the future will bring for me and my career.

Dorota: Now listening to you I realize what an amazing set of strengths and character traits you need to possess to do this kind of job. What do you think are the challenges of the non-profit sector itself?

Virginie: The international NGO sector has been going through some significant changes in its quest to fulfill its mission and vision. A lot of these organizations were set up by western people with amazing intentions to solve often issues of non-western countries. So one of the big realizations was that in order to deal better with the issues of these countries, people from the impacted countries needed to be part of seeking solutions. Therefore, many NGO’s are ensuring more and more people from the countries most affected are bringing the answers and becoming the decisions makers of such organization. It is a slow process and who knows, maybe the big international NGO’s will be slowly replaced by organizations set up in the global south, by the people of the global south. This may very well be the natural evolution of the sector.

Moreover, the world is a very different place today then when many international NGO’s were started. We live in a fast changing world, with people being continuously bombarded by information, 24/7. Just like any other sector the arrival of the internet and social media has made this a very different world to operate in. To get messages across, to raise awareness, to raise funds; all this is more challenging in a more complex media world, where seeking and keeping people’s attention is a real challenge. The NGO sector, has comparatively speaking more limited resources to face such challenges and therefore needs to be even more resourceful and creative to get its messages and work across.

Dorota: So Virginie what didn’t I ask you yet or what would you like to add to our interview.

Virginie: Yes, I want to mention that working for an NGO is amazing and very fulfilling. It is definitely a tough game but it is very, very rewarding. It should only not be over idealized. So if you have a commitment and a clear purpose then it is an amazing thing to be able to work for such an organization that you can feel incredibly proud of.

Dorota: Thanks a lot Virginie for doing this interview. I believe what you shared gave my readers so much interesting insights about what it is like to work for an NGO. So if I may recap: Yes it is possible to get into the NGO sector but before you do so, ask yourself: What is my motivation, why do I want to do it, what is my true purpose in making this step? If after answering those questions you still feel NGO sector is right for you and you believe you have the passion and ‘stomach’ for it just go for it!

Photo by Madi Robson on Unsplash