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Finding passion, purpose, and profession in a compassionate career

Finding passion, purpose, and profession in a compassionate career

Many people today are looking for more than “just a job.” At our very core, we want our life to matter. We want to spend our time doing something we care about and that makes a difference in the world.

Unfortunately, jobs in this arena are rarely promoted or supported by parents, teachers, or counselors. Only 4 percent of people working in the philanthropic sector say that anyone has ever mentioned this field to them.

The following advice is for people who want to explore cause-focused work—or what we call “Compassionate Careers.” Find out how you can create the world you want to live in, by combining your passion, purpose and a profession!


Do discover the fastest-growing workforce

The range of job options is huge and includes work across all sectors. Compassionate careers include jobs in nonprofits, foundations, corporate social responsibility programs and social enterprise. The nonprofit sector alone is now the third-largest segment of the U.S. workforce, following retail and manufacturing. There are nearly 2 million nonprofit agencies in the U.S., employing 13.7 million people and accounting for nearly 10 percent of the nation’s workforce. The number of nonprofits actually grew by 24 percent between 2000 and 2010. This growth rate is substantially higher than in either government or business. International non-profits, commonly known as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), are also expanding at a dramatic rate, both in size and scope.

Moreover, across the next two decades, Baby Boomers will be retiring from these positions in droves; hundreds of thousands of visionary leaders who have launched and piloted compassionate organizations are poised to step away from their work, so it’s the perfect time for job seekers to explore these options.

Do be appropriately schooled and skilled

The field needs to be as professional as possible, and—just as in any field—the more certified knowledge and experience you have, the better your chances of success. Degrees that can help you find a job in the compassionate career field include public administration, business administration, nonprofit management, education, health, or social work. There are nonprofit certification and degree programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, including at many state universities and a growing number of prestigious institutions—like Stanford, Duke, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins University.

Often people get a master’s in public administration or a master’s in public health, with an added concentration in nonprofit management. Perhaps just as important as a degree are the networking and field experiences you get while going to school. Being actively involved in your community, both inside and outside of the academic setting, will help you work your way into the field.

Do search for the right organizational culture fit

You’ll ultimately be more satisfied, stay longer, and be far more productive if you find the right match to begin with. Are you creative or systematic? Visionary or pragmatic? What supervisor, team, or department is going to be best for you? Look for an organization that considers interpersonal dynamics and makes an effort to match people’s styles to other employees, to the needs of the organization, and to the overall purpose of your work.

These organizations aim for the optimal mix of both style and skills to most effectively meet their missions, and they’ll work to achieve an environment where staff morale is elevated by trust, respect, and open communication. How you align with your colleagues and managers is essential to your overall job satisfaction, your performance, and your future. In fact, culture fit accounts to 89 percent of an individual’s success in the workplace.

Do be deliberate about your own advancement

If you want to make a living by making a difference—you’re unlikely to find a career ladder that you can just keep climbing. Why? Because, so far, there’s largely a lack of dedicated attention to professional advancement in this sector, and you’ll therefore need to be all the more savvy about your career choices. The sooner you realize that you’ll most likely have to navigate your own way forward, the better.

Whether your next move is lateral or vertical, you can start by shadowing, cross-training, or finding mentorship opportunities. You should also leverage any “stretch assignments” that you’re offered, in which you can go above and beyond your day-to-day tasks, explore new things, and prove your worth in other areas.


Do not underestimate the potential

Many people don’t take the field seriously. “It’s charity” - “Not challenging” - “All volunteer” - “Doesn’t pay well” - “Nice, but not necessity.” But, counter to popular belief, cause-focused organizations are not staffed primarily by volunteers and they don’t necessarily pay in pennies. The truth is that there are some jobs that are really poorly paid and some that are really well paid—but most are in the middle with a pay range that is comparable to most other professions.

Nonprofit wages actually increased by 29 percent between 2000 and 2010 (while the rest of the economy was in the tank). These jobs pay about $322 billion in wages, and the combined assets of U.S. nonprofits is about $3 trillion, making the sector the seventh-largest economy in the world—larger than the economies of Brazil, Russia, and Canada. Nor should we expect the people who work in cause-focused organizations to do so solely out of the goodness of their hearts. They also have bills to pay and kids to raise. Compassionate careers are about having both purpose and a paycheck, not one or the other!

Do not attempt to fly solo

Mentors and networks are vital to your professional growth—they help you create connections and navigate opportunities. How do you find good mentors? Start with people you know—friends, family, faculty, employers, or church leaders—and ask them to help you in your quest. Mentors can introduce you to individuals and give you information about professional associations or other gatherings of people where you can start getting to know others who are doing the type of work you’d like to get into. You can also ask about academic programs, reading material, volunteer assignments, internships and regular employment. The vast majority of jobs are offered to people by word-of-mouth. Why? Because nine times out of ten, people would rather work with someone they know and trust, or hire a person who is referred to them by someone they know and trust.

Do not accept just anything

Many people actually want to jump around between jobs these days, try on different positions, move to new places, and learn different skills. But it can be hit-or-miss in this field if you’re not careful. Our counsel is to be especially wary of the organization that does nothing to invest in your future. It’s a predictor of negative consequences, mostly for you. Try to find out how the organization will help advance your personal and professional growth even before you accept an offer.

Do your homework and check out the organization’s “talent brand.” You can ask people about their experiences, and by searching online public records, you can check the financial statements of an organization to see if it funds professional development. For nonprofits and foundations, this information should be listed at State government websites also have much of this data. Then, once you are working in the field, continue to deliberately create and follow your own development path so you’re not overly dependent on somebody else to make those decisions for you.

Do not compromise what you know to be true about yourself

Ultimately, it’s up to you to understand your current situation and what’s possible. And it’s probably most important to think about your own personal style. Do you want to work with five people or 5,000? Do you like working in a team, with close supervision, or on your own? Are you a pedal-to-the-metal kind of personality, or do you value a calmer environment with time to reflect? What kind of stress are you willing to put up with?

You might not mind a challenge, but dealing with high-risk clients every day can take a heavy emotional toll. Don’t compromise what you know to be true for yourself. In romance, you’d ditch the date. That holds true for other life decisions as well.

Jumping cartoon

Our future depends upon people pursuing careers that focus on the common good, and there is great opportunity here for people to find both personal and professional fulfillment. But landing the right compassionate career for you requires understanding what you really care about, exploring opportunities, getting the appropriate education and training, building connections, and finding the right culture fit. Understanding these jobs and how to be successful in them will help you close the gap between what you do and what matters most to you.

As Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, says, “When what you are deeply passionate about, what you can be best in the world at, and what drives your economic engine come together, not only does your work move toward greatness, but so does your life. For, in the end, it is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work. Perhaps, then, you might gain that rare tranquility that comes from knowing that you’ve had a hand in creating something of intrinsic excellence that makes a contribution. Indeed, you might even gain that deepest of all satisfactions: knowing that your short time here on this earth has been well spent, and that it mattered.”

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Photo Credits: Andy Dean Photography/; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Alexandra MitchellPresident

Alexandra Mitchell is the co-author of Compassionate Careers: Making a Living by Making a Difference. She is also president of Pathfinder Solutions, a research and advisory firm dedicated to providing capacity building tools and services to caus...

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