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

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

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?



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?


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.


Neither of these is true. It's not the tax status that determines the impact of the organization on the needs of the world.

It is the mission and the quality of the organization and its leadership and how effective the organization is at achieving their objectives. Jim Collins, in the best (little) book I have ever read about the social sector, reminds us that most organizations, for-profit and not-for-profit, are simply not great organizations. But you should find one that is!

Can a fair-trade for-profit coffee company do as much to generate gainful employment in Rwanda as a not-for-profit microcredit organization? Absolutely. Which is better, a biotech company looking for a new class of antibiotic or a field health organization reaching those least served? It depends.

Yes, stakeholders in a for-profit company have motives that might affect the way the mission is pursued.  But self-interest plays into all organizations' choices. You need to look deeply into to the mission and the approach to serving the mission to determine where you might be able to use your values, passion, and skills to do the most good.


As a frequent nonprofit employer of "bridgers," I expected bridging candidates to demonstrate a sustained commitment to pursuing their values—not a newfound passion. If the candidate didn't show a long-term commitment to his or her values (using their money, time, or voice in pursuit of those values) before they showed up looking to "bridge" to a leadership role that would allow them to exercise those values, they were at a real disadvantage over those who had already demonstrated their commitment.

I encourage Eric and others struggling to make a values-based career change to start this exploration by exploring four key questions:

Values match: What do I care deeply about?

Skill match: With my education, skills, experience, and financial resources, what can I offer to the organizations addressing those issues?

Life match: What key conditions do I need to be successful (geography, pay, work environment)?

Organization match: What organizations are making real progress in an area that aligns with my values, meet my basic criteria above, and have an unmet need that I can potentially serve?

Then you can either go back to school in a program that will help you build the skills needed to make that ideal match; offer to work on a volunteer basis where you can build the experience and understanding that will make you a better match for the right job and right organization; or get out into the marketplace with your criteria in hand.

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. In our ongoing effort to do better ourselves, we're donating 25 percent of the proceeds from this column to ONE.org—an organization committed to raising public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger, and disease and the efforts to fight such problems in the world's poorest countries.