Will I do more good by getting an MBA or by working for a nonprofit?

Advice on how to make the world better.
March 4 2009 6:56 AM

Bridge to Somewhere

I could get an MBA, or I could keep working at nonprofits. Which is better?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Patty and Sandy,

I'm a fairly recent grad from an expensive liberal arts college where I enjoyed four years of life in a bubble. Armed with my diploma, I leaped headlong into the world of management consulting. After about two years of selling high-priced advice to executives, I began to grow restless and fearful that I would fall prey to the steeply sloping compensation curve. I again shifted gears to something I knew nothing about, talking my way into a support role in an international development organization. After witnessing inefficiency, questionable efficacy, and cloudy intentions, I am marginally disillusioned and find myself wondering where my talents might be best utilized.

Should I should pursue an MBA and reintegrate myself into the world of startups, return on investment, and innovation? How should I balance the allure of the private sector and its mystique as a more rewarding, fast-paced career with the seemingly greater possibility to be a true agent of positive and innovative change in the nonprofit and public sectors?

Eric

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Sandy:
Well, Eric, you've come to the right do-gooding mom for this question—she has career advice in abundance (check out a recent interview about her own for-profit-to-nonprofit transition), so I am going to leave the tough stuff to her and stick to a few quick points.

First, please don't base this whole decision on your experience with one nonprofit. There are good and bad organizations in every sector. Take the time to assess what type of work and work environment you want (it sounds like a fast-paced, highly efficient workplace is important to you) and find an organization that fits, whether it's nonprofit, for-profit, or "not-only-for-profit."

Second, as someone who used to be absolutely sure she would never be interested in an MBA program, let me be the first to say that MBA programs aren't just for for-profit folks anymore. Check out the Aspen Institute's biennial guide to socially responsible MBA programs. It sounds like the highly transferable skills that come with an MBA might be right for you, but don't plan for it to limit your future to the world of startups. And since when are startups and innovation the domain of the private sector, anyway? Start reading Stanford University's Social Innovation Review or the Skoll Foundation's Social Edge blog to learn more about the ways innovation and entrepreneurship are being harnessed to enact social change.

I'm surprised to hear a millennial so easily accept the traditional dichotomy between the nonprofit and for-profit worlds. Why not try to shake things up a bit? You may have to do more research and write more cover letters than you would if you were filtering your job search by sector—but isn't it worth it to find the very best fit?

Patty:
Eric, I was a "bridger" (a label I first learned from Bridgestar, and it fits my story perfectly) who moved from 20 years in the for-profit technology sector to a not-for-profit career in the foundation sector (12 and counting). As a result I get lots of questions like yours. Most start with something like: "I have been doing this for-profit job, and now I want to do something good/give something back, so I would like to apply my skills to the nonprofit world. What should I do?"

It's nice, even admirable, but it's not the right way to think about your next steps. Let me start by discussing two pervasive myths about the for-profit/not-for-profit equation that I frequently encounter when talking to for-profit leaders thinking about making this change:

Myth No. 1: Not–for-profit missions are inherently more "good for the world" than for profit; thus choosing to work in a values-based or mission-based job means choosing to work in a not-for-profit.

Myth No. 2: People who work in the for-profit sector are more talented than their peers in not-for-profit organizations.