skip to Main Content

Sector Switching: Navigating the Transition from the Private Sector to the Social Impact Sector

Over the last 9 years, I’ve worked with thousands of people who, for a variety of reasons, are looking to make the switch from the private sector to an organization where social impact, not profit, is the primary bottom line.  While it is not the right decision for everyone, I always applaud those who have decided to chart a new path and follow their passion, whatever that might be.  But, as always when taking a new path, there’s a level of mystery and uncertainty about what lies ahead.  Below is some of the advice I’ve shared with sector switchers over the years.

Switch Only for the Right Reasons

There is a myth out there about the social impact sector.  It has persisted for decades, and every day people fall for this myth and transition from the private sector to the social impact sector, only to quickly realize they made the wrong decision.

What is this myth? That the social impact sector is an easier lifestyle with less hours and a less demanding work environment.

I’m not sure why this myth started.  But it has persisted.  Many people are worn out after working long hours in the private sector and are ready for a change.  Or perhaps their life stage has changed and now, with a little one at home, they decide a less demanding work life would be better.  What some fail to realize is this: the leaders of social impact organization are no less inherently relentless in achieving their missions than private sector employers are at achieving maximum profit.  To put it more bluntly, long hours, challenging work environments, demanding bosses – these factors have nothing to do with whether an organization is for-profit or non-profit.

These characteristics are driven by the leadership and culture of an organization, not by its corporate structure.  I’ve worked with non-profits where employees worked hours that were comparable to the 80+ hour work weeks I averaged as an investment banking analyst at Citigroup.  And I’ve worked with easy-going, relaxed, 9-5 nonprofits.  The private sector has both types of organizations (and everything in between) as well.  So remember – don’t lump all social impact sector organizations together and assume they have the same culture, work environment, etc – they vary greatly just like the private sector.

Don’t make the switch for work/life balance – you can find that in the private sector.  Switch because you care about the mission and impact of the organization and you are passionate about using your skills to make a difference.

You Probably won’t get Rich, but You can Earn a Good Living in the Social Impact Sector

We all know people who say they would love to be working in the social impact sector if it weren’t for some financial consideration.  My student loan payments are too high.  I have a family and don’t think I could support them. I’m not willing to reduce my standard of living.  You name it – the list goes on and on.

There is some truth to this.  Top salaries in the private sector are far higher than top salaries in the social impact sector.  So, if your goal is to make millions, you’re in the wrong place.  But we’re not all living in poverty either. You can absolutely make an impact with your career and make a living at the same time.  Wondering what your salary would be if you made the switch?  Impossible to say, of course – every city, organization, and role is very different.  But are there people making $40k, $80k, $120k, $200k in the social impact sector?  Absolutely.  So, while working in the social impact sector will likely require some financial sacrifice or adjustment, you can still live comfortably, while at the same time making a powerful impact on society.  And that’s a form of compensation, too.

Be Confident: You Have a Lot to Offer the Social Impact Sector

Here’s another frequent question – will the social impact sector value my private sector skills and experience?  Short answer: Absolutely. The social impact sector needs talented people who have scaled businesses, developed successful strategies, marketed new products, turned around companies, argued important legal cases, negotiated contracts, built budgets, etc – you name it, they need it.  The experience you develop in business can help drive impact in the social impact sector – after all, these organizations are business as well, they just serve a social purpose instead of, or alongside, a financial one.

Now, does every social impact organization know what to do with a business executive with an MBA and 18 years of work experience in finance?  No, certainly not.  Some organizations would salivate for talent like that, and others wouldn’t have a clue how to fully utilize talent with that background and skills.  So, once again, there is nuance – the key is finding the right organization and role that matches your skills, experience, abilities, and organizational culture preferences.  WorkMonger’s unique approach to hiring can help with that.

Be Humble and Respectful: You Don’t Have All the Answers

Confidence in your abilities and skills must be coupled with humility and respect for those who have been tackling these challenges far longer than you.  I have seen sector switchers fail to find this balance time and time again.  The problem arises when the former private sector employee thinks they are smarter, more experienced, and could easily do a better job than their new social impact sector colleagues. This lack of humility will derail a career in the social impact sector faster than anything else.  People with this mindset do not appreciate that the issues that social impact organizations deal with are far more challenging, and often systemic, than they realize. Not to mention that the people who are working for these organizations are smart, too, and have some experience and perspective that you don’t have.  Do not assume that the “smart kids” start in the private sector and then switch, or that someone who started their career in the social impact sector doesn’t have a thing or two to teach you as well. Nothing turns people off more than walking in, not valuing their experience, and acting like you already have all the answers when you may not even fully understand the situation or know the people.

Humility and respect can go a long way.  As a new leader in the social impact sector, you have to find the proper balance between sharing what you know, being confident in your abilities – and asking lots of questions and valuing the insight that those with more experience in the sector can provide.

So, should you switch to the social impact sector?  Only you know whether it is the right decision for you and your family.  But the needs we serve are great and the talent pool is small for the task at hand – so we need more talented people like you to step up and give the sector a try.  I’ll never forget the rush I got when I left investment banking to become the Finance Director at a nonprofit.  It was the right decision for me – perhaps it is for you, too.

        – John Troy is the Founder of WorkMonger and a former private sector employee who

          remains thrilled he made the transition to the social impact sector.

        – Connect with WorkMonger on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

WorkMonger - Career Change - Career Transition Blog - Sector Switching: Navigating the Transition from the Private Sector to the Social Impact Sector


Back To Top