It appears that the current economic downturn has a number of would-be Wall Street types scrapping their original career plans and heading to the nonprofit sector for shelter from the storm. While exact figures are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that a growing number of graduates from M.B.A. programs and elite undergraduate institutions are turning to charities now that jobs in consulting and banking are few and far between.
"I think for a lot of people, this sector has become more attractive," said Russ Finkelstein, associate director of Idealist.org, the No. 1 online job aggregator for nonprofit jobs and volunteer opportunities. "There are less people recruiting on campuses these days. If you land a service job, at least you know what you're going to do next year."
Finkelstein said job placement advisers on college campuses are reporting a surge in interest for one- and two-year positions among students. Many are looking for short-term gigs with service organizations like the Peace Corps and Teach for America -- which may involve paltry paychecks but carry undeniable cocktail party cache. These programs offer talented and ambitious A-types the chance to add a dash of do-gooding to their resumes.
A Sure Thing?
They also give them a short-term reprieve from searching for a job when firms are more apt to fire than hire. "Students want a sure thing," he said, and for-profit job prospects in the immediate future are anything but concrete.
Robin Mount, interim director of the Office of Career Services at Harvard University, said that given the current job market, she thinks students feel more free to explore "out-of-the-box options," or jobs they wouldn't have considered if more traditional ones were available.
But students should be warned that getting a job in a nonprofit isn't easy despite the small paycheck. The rush to hop into reputable charities, coupled with a decline in donations, is going to bring private-sector competition to an industry once known for attracting small, not-so-fast swimming fish. "I think a lot of students who want those nonprofit jobs are nervous," said Mount.
Josh Ruxin runs four nonprofit organizations in Rwanda that are focused on helping local communities develop. He has seen a 60% surge in applications for the modestly paid positions at his four nonprofits since the economy took a turn for the worse. Many of these volunteers have backgrounds in fields like management or accounting, he says. One of his recent hires recently lost a job in the agribusiness sector. "Someone may always have wanted to do something like this," Ruxin said. "Now's the best time."
Gaining Transferable Skills
That's exactly what Miranda Moore, a recent M.B.A. graduate from the University of Missouri, thought when she accepted the offer to join the Peace Corps next February. She'll fly to Uganda and live there for two years, helping non-governmental organizations improve their management practices.
"Peace Corps is something I always wanted to do, but I didn't get an M.B.A. to join the Peace Corps. I got an M.B.A. so I could have a pretty high-paying job," said Moore.
But when job prospects dimmed, Moore decided that public service was a good idea. "At a time like this, there's basically zero opportunity costs to joining the Peace Corps," she said.
Hopping into the not-for-profit world can also help in landing a job when the world of money gets back into orbit. "I think there are always transferable skills like being able to negotiate and work with people who are not like yourself," said Monica Wilson, associate director of Undergraduate Career Services at Dartmouth College. "In the past, a lot of the financial services firms were willing to defer start dates for people accepted into certain service programs. It's not a disadvantage."
"The same set of skills that make a student an attractive candidate in the private sector can make them equally attractive in the nonprofit arena," said Joseph Du Pont, director of the career center at Brandeis University. "So, whereas a student might have thought of working in finance on Wall Street, we are seeing an increasing number willing to take those same analytical skills to help an emerging nonprofit create a business plan or work in other careers that have social impact."