A Nonprofit Gal Goes Corporate

For as long as I can remember, I have always felt a connection with the nonprofit sector. Maybe it’s because I grew up doing community service and working with local charities, or maybe it’s just that my heart and my spirit have always needed to engage in projects that had a positive impact on others. Whatever the reason, I have always gravitated toward work with a social mission. So it was a no brainer that when I graduated from college, I joined the ranks of nonprofit employees across the country and got to work.  The first time I dipped my toes into the corporate water was when I applied to business school. After five years of fundraising for Bay Area nonprofits, I felt deeply rooted in the nonprofit community. I understood how to exist and thrive in that realm, how to partner with donors and other organizations to truly effect change. In short, they were my people, and I was theirs.

Yet, no matter how attached or connected I felt in the safe nonprofit space I had created, I knew there was something missing. Some people say that nonprofits don’t focus on the cold, hard impact numbers. Others say nonprofits suffer from a crisis of management and leadership experience. And others actually say both are true. For me, no matter how aligned my personal beliefs were with the nonprofit sector and the good work it does, I felt as though I could do more and do better by understanding how “the other half” lived. Which is how I found my way to the Boston University Graduate School of Management.

The BU GSM (as we call it) has been a great place to land for a nonprofiteer in the midst of a bit of an identity crisis (check out BU’s Public and Nonprofit Management Program for more info). I came to BU armed with my fundraising experience and a keen understanding of how the nonprofit sector operated. Yet I also arrived with a true curiosity about how business—with its access to financial, technological, and staff resources that often far exceed those in the nonprofit world—might tackle some of the global, social issues that I care about. Thus I began my first year of business school.

The past 9 months have been a time of intense questioning and driven exploration for me. I have started getting better at seeing problems through the lens of business, and my solutions these days often involve a deeper consideration of revenue streams, operating costs, and shareholder concerns. Yet what’s interesting is that when you think about it, these three issues, while packaged in business language, are actually also necessary priorities in any nonprofit organization. More organizations these days are looking for ways to become self-sustaining through revenue, especially in this economic climate. Maintaining low operating costs is also a huge issue in the sector when so many funders only want to support programmatic expenses. And shareholders in the nonprofit world are simply donors who believe in your mission enough to invest in the work that you do. If there's any development director out there who’s not concerned about keeping her donors happy, I’d like to know what her secret is.

In short, while there may be some very fundamental differences between businesses and nonprofit organizations (which I’m sure will become its own post at some point!), I do believe there are a lot of similarities. And, with a year of business school under my belt, I’m pleased to say that I will soon have the opportunity to become a bit of an expert on this topic.

Starting next week, I’ll be interning at an international consumer products company in Massachusetts (for confidentiality’s sake, I’ll be calling this company ABC throughout my blog). As one of their first-ever corporate philanthropy interns, I will be responsible for solidifying and growing ABC’s corporate giving efforts, which include cash and product donations, as well as employee volunteer hours. It’s a very big job that I’m very excited to start—and I’ll be bringing The Changebase readers along with me throughout the summer.

When I look back at where my journey started in fundraising, and the path I have taken through my first year at BU, I laugh a little bit when I think about my summer plans. Before business school I would have never expected to work anywhere but a nonprofit, and yet I am thrilled to have the chance to understand philanthropy through the eyes of a for-profit corporation. While I’m sure that there will be an inherent, steep learning curve, my hunch is that perhaps it won’t look that different from what I’ve known so far in my career. After all, ABC wants happy, healthy and satisfied customers, which is what every nonprofit wants for its community. At the end of the day, we both want the same thing—we just get there differently. Here’s to seeing how the other half lives!