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From nonprofit to for-profit: How I am still working for social change

Photo credit:  agsandrew, Shutterstock

Photo credit: agsandrew, Shutterstock

A few months ago, I made the leap from the nonprofit world to the private sector, where I now work on the social responsibility team for an apparel company. In my department, we handle environmental sustainability and human rights within our supply chain and all aspects of company giving, focusing specifically on empowering women and girls. We also support our colleagues’ efforts to serve others through volunteerism and employee giving. It is a unique job, and luckily for me, it allows me to explore each aspect of social responsibility.

When I tell the story now of how I reached my current job, it sounds like I had this figured out all along. But it wasn’t a linear path to get here. For a long time, I struggled to find a path that combined what I was good at with what I was interested in. One summer in college, I went directly from an archaeology trip in Belize to working for a wedding planner. I wrote a paper on the apparel industry in an agriculture class when the rest of my classmates wrote on more predictable topics. While working in the nonprofit world, I spent my free time pursuing sustainable fashion through continuing education classes, hanging out with designers, and reading anything I could get my hands on. My interests seemed too disparate to ever come together.

And so I thought the same of the nonprofit and for-profit worlds. How could business do good when the main goal is to make money in order to keep your stakeholders happy? How could I serve others if I didn’t work at a nonprofit? And after working in nonprofits, did I even know how to get a job in the private sector?

Can for-profits do good?

I considered all of this while working at a nonprofit that introduced me to a community that was as idealistic and value-oriented as I was. I felt like I could be my whole self at work, and no longer needed to check my values at the door to the office. As buzz words like “Intrapreneur” floated around, I wondered why I would give this job up, even if I felt saw great opportunity to make a positive social impact by working for “the other side.”

But as my interest in ethics and transparency in the apparel industry increasingly claimed my spare time, I knew I was ready to make the leap. But I was worried. Would my future colleagues share my values of service, authenticity, honesty and curiosity? Would it be a daily battle to convince them to do what’s right?

Many companies, including those in the apparel industry, have Corporate Social Responsibility (“CSR”) teams that sometimes seem to exist just for show. I wanted to work for the companies who were doing it right, companies where social responsibility was not limited to a specific department, but existed as part of their mission and where all employees were empowered to apply the values of sustainability and respect for human rights to their own work.

Finally making the switch

By the time I was ready to pursue my interest full-time, I was also ready to take some big risks: I quit my nonprofit job, started an ethical fashion blog, and worked briefly in India with Fair Trade artisans.

But while the job I’m in is unique and the company culture is hard to find, it doesn’t require big risks to make a big change:

  • Use the resources around you. As I was already reading and exploring the field of sustainable fashion for fun, I began noting companies that excited me as I came across them. My running spreadsheet eventually provided me a map of where to look for a job once I was ready. If you’re just starting your research, try the member lists of notable professional organizations in your field. For me, this included B Corps, Social Venture Network, Business for Social Responsibility and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
  • Once you know what you’re interested in, show it! I love writing, so starting a blog on my passion was an easy way to have fun and to show my interest to future employers without having direct professional experience. But that’s not the solution for everyone. Figure out your unique way of how to show your knowledge on a topic, even if you haven’t worked directly in that field before.
  • Have real conversations with people working in the field. When you have a very niche interest, it can be hard to find specific jobs to apply to. This was the case in my recent search, so I focused more on learning and relationship building. I reached out to many people, often with a cold email or through a distant contact, and I was always surprised by how willing everyone was to speak with me. LinkedIn or your university’s alumni network can be great resources, but even an inspiring article on a company or person is reason enough to search for how to get in touch. Just make sure you respect their time, prepare thoughtful questions by doing your research and get rid of any expectations. By focusing on having an authentic conversation based on learning from that person’s experience (and throwing out any notions of asking for a job), you give room for a real relationship to develop.

It was through one such conversation with my now boss that led me to this job.

Throughout the interview process, I probed to understand the values of the company, a big priority for me in transitioning from a non-profit to a for-profit. Now, as an employee, when I hear our company leaders talking about “business as a movement,” I know I landed in the right place: where profit is important, but so are people and the planet. And given recent events like the clothing factory collapses and fires in Bangladesh, I realize there is not a better moment to be a part of this movement. Business can be a vehicle for doing good and improving the world around us, and it’s time for those of us called to change the world to bring our idealism to industries that need our passion, skills, and heart.

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Rebecca Magee works as the Social Consciousness Coordinator at EILEEN FISHER, Inc. When she’s not thinking about sustainable fashion at work, she’s writing about it in her free time on her blog, THIS I WEAR. She owes Idealist.org a huge “thank you” for connecting her to two full-time positions that led her to where she is now.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Iv

    Sorry, but don’t get it. Switching between profit to non-profit is understandable, but the opposite sounds simply like giving up. I hate it when I have to work from specific hour to another no matter if it’s needed or not. It’s really dissappointing to not use your capacity at best but just reaching the clock. We, people are more than that and must work for a change, for improving quality of life of everyone, and we all must not simply quit profit, but help others to do so.

  2. AJH

    Well, having made a similar move (non-profit to profit) several years ago, I can honestly say that my current work in the CSR field is WAY more rewarding than my non-profit work ever was. I have the ability to effect real change, not to mention influencing corporate America to shift its practices to more responsible (for humans and nature) behaviors. There is definitely conscience-feeding work on both sides of the coin (for-profit and non-profit).

    • mikeC

      I totally get it. I’ve been ‘in the trenches’ for a long time, almost 20 years, and the lack of pay plus having to deal with cut backs gets really old. To say that its impossible to do good and get a decent paycheck (without having to take out more student loans) is giving up, in my book. I always hear, at various conferences or meetings , people say ‘ well we aren’t in this for the money! ha ha ha (nervous laughter)’ and i call BS- i do this work because i believe in it- but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be rewarded , monetarily, for my efforts. I really want to look more into this idea, as i feel as though I have put my time in and am curious how my skills might transfer to something more lucrative.

  3. CMella

    Working in the field of worker health has made me feel quite disdainful of CSR. But also, as the last commenter mikeC says, after a while it becomes overwhelming to get paid so little for doing so much good work and sometimes not seeing the difference in the world. Do you have any advice Rebecca for people like me, who have been so intimately and deeply tied into the values of bottom-up to even believe that top-down can be “good”? And besides EILEEN FISHER, which I consider to have one of the best CSR programs (I recall reading that every piece of your supply chain from harvest to recycling is evaluated for its social and environmental impact), what other companies are doing such a good job? Thanks!

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