Advice For New Graduates: Consider a Career at a Non-Profit
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As spring arrives and graduation season approaches, I’m finding it hard to believe that it has been 17 years since I graduated from college. Thinking back, I realize how much my perspective has changed over the years, particularly my idea of what constitutes the perfect job.
Finally out on my own after graduating, I was ready to prove myself and in order to do that I thought I needed a job that offered me three things:
1) Money- A respectable enough amount to allow me to live on my own and become fully independent of my parents. Being able to pay back my student loans would be a plus too.
2) Travel- As an international studies major, travel was essential. I wanted to see new places and learn about other cultures firsthand. It wouldn’t hurt that being a “world traveler” would bring this Midwest girl a little prestige among family and friends either.
3) Glory- Like many college graduates, I came out thinking I knew it all (or almost). I wanted an employer who would validate all of my years of hard work and encourage me to climb the ladder to individual success.
When I answered IREX’s ad in the Washington Post all of those years ago, I had no idea the direction my life would take, but I was admittedly a bit nervous about a position at one of those non-profits, especially given how important I thought the aforementioned things were at the time. The non-profit stereotypes have been around for years—overworked, underappreciated, and underpaid. On the contrary, I enjoyed the start of my career at IREX, but also knew I had to try my hand in the for-profit world. IREX had left its mark on me though and I returned to the fold a few years later. Little did I know when I first responded to that ad, how much IREX would change my idea of those non-profits...and of the three things that are truly important in a job.
1) Organizational culture—I have friends that make a lot of money. Those friends work 60-70 hours per week. Every week? Really? When do they even have time to spend that money? On the other hand, IREX pays competitively, but also stresses the importance of work/life balance for all of its employees. Work is important, but not at the expense of your family and well-being.
The people at every level of IREX have a true respect for each other, their opinions and their contributions. We are encouraged to exchange ideas and learn from each other every day. Moreover, we like each other. Bob Pearson, IREX’s President, is often heard referring to the “IREX family”—not just with outside audiences, but internally as well. He knows the name and face of everyone in this organization and makes an effort to get to know each individual as well. How many organizations of over 400 employees have a leadership that operates on such a personal level?
2) Opportunity—I still believe travel is one of the best perks in a job, but I don’t want to travel overseas just to sit in a boardroom and listen to a Power Point presentation. Travel means much more when you are in the field, meeting interesting people, understanding their everyday life and building bridges between cultures firsthand. What other professional development opportunities does a job offer? Specialized training opportunities? A voice in the mission of the organization? I have been lucky enough to have numerous opportunities to travel, but also to learn from outstanding mentors in the field, taken on leadership roles in the organization, and gained access to important tools to enhance my work and develop my professional skills. When prospective job applicants ask me if they will have the opportunity to travel with IREX, as they almost always do in this field, I’m inclined to say that travel is just the tip of the iceberg.
3) Doing What You Love and Believe In—IREX staff come from varied backgrounds, but they all share a couple of common attributes—a passion for the work and a shared pride in “Making a Better World.” Personal success always feels good, but knowing that the shared actions of the IREX family have made an impact on so many lives and that those lives have, in turn, impacted so many others, is a whole other level of glory. So I did end up with the glory—just not exactly in the way I imagined it all those years ago.
I won’t pretend that some of the things said about non-profits aren’t true. For example, it IS a lot of hard work, but the steadfast shared belief in all of the hard work we do makes it 100% worth it. I don’t profess to know it all anymore, but I do hope that my years of experience will give those entering the workforce now some genuine food for thought. Congratulations to the Class of 2012. I wish you the best of luck as you strive to find the right career path for you. And congratulations to the IREX family. You have made this organization what it is and I am so proud that our family has finally received the recognition it deserves as one of the 50 best non-profits to work for in 2012.