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Nonprofit Career Opportunities

Posted on 08 November 2009

Nonprofits Struggle
To Attract Graduates

If ever a college senior seemed likely to eschew the world of signing bonuses and stock options, it was Monica Nah Lee.

Caught up in the challenges of education reform, the Amherst College psychology major coordinated a tutoring program for Latino girls and dreamed up plans for her own charter school — while maintaining a 3.7 grade-point average. Ms. Lee spent her summers working with at-risk middle-school students.

So after checking the career possibilities at a number of charter schools, inquiring about positions with educational policy groups and attending job fairs sponsored by nonprofit organizations, what are her plans once she graduates next month? After three months of difficult deliberation, Ms. Lee, now 21, decided to take a $5,000 signing bonus from McKinsey & Co. and go to work as a business analyst.

Nonprofits have a hard time competing with private employers for graduating students. And they handicap themselves, according to Lisa B. Tessler, director of the career planning center at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. While business recruiters come to New England campuses earlier each year, she says, nonprofit employers are “just gearing up now.”

That’s too bad, “because there are bright young people entering their senior years who are looking for service,” says Judith A. Auerbach, president of Auerbach Associates Inc., an executive-search firm specializing in nonprofits.

But it’s not just a matter of recruiting tactics. Even for the likeliest prospects, the reality of nonprofits can be discouraging.

“If I went the nonprofit route, I’d be just a body at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter,” Ms. Lee says. “That’s very worthwhile, but I feel like I’d be wasting my education.” So she intends to spend a few years at McKinsey, learning how business works, and then return to the nonprofit world with skills that will translate into more clout and the potential to have greater impact.

“The truth is, I still plan on going into education reform,” Ms. Lee says, “but right now, I feel like all I have is passion and no resources.”

Building up her resources before returning to the nonprofit world should also mean a higher salary when she gets there. Newly minted graduates are generally offered just $22,000 to $25,000 a year, according to Irma R. Tryon, director of recruiting for the career services office at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. That compares with the more than $50,000 that McKinsey will pay Ms. Lee.

“The difference in salaries is incredible,” Ms. Tryon says.

That difference, and a mountain of student loans, make the job decision straightforward for some seniors. “Students often have a real conflict, because they graduate with a great deal of debt, and of course the prospect of a few years with high pay is very attractive,” says Joanne Murray, director of career services at Wellesley. Like Ms. Lee, they often have the idea of then returning to their nonprofit roots.

Money was one reason Bradford J. Mak, who will graduate from Brown University in Providence, R.I., this May, accepted a $42,000 offer from a San Francisco Internet start-up that has a stock-option plan. Having spent one summer in Costa Rica and Peru, digging latrines and teaching villagers about hygiene and sanitation, and the next conducting a field-research project out of a hospital in Bangladesh, he seemed like a lock for the nonprofits.

“I used to be, like, `I’m going to live in refugee camps,’” says Mr. Mak, who majored in human biology.

But by last fall, with corporate recruiters hitting the campus regularly, Mr. Mak was weighing the pros and cons of the corporate life. He had suddenly been hit, he says, by the reality of supporting himself. And his latest close look at a nonprofit had been disillusioning: The “inefficiencies, corruption, bad management and miscommunications” among the members of the project’s management team had left him wondering just how much he wanted to work for one after all.

In Ms. Lee’s case, the career choice was in keeping with the wishes of her parents. Korean immigrants in Youngstown, Ohio, Chun Shik and Young Mee Lee often brag about their daughter’s activism, but are happy she chose McKinsey.

“I’ve been very proud of her for having such large dreams, and for being so fearless in pursuing them,” says Ms. Lee’s mother, but “we overwhelmingly wanted her to go into business, either as an end in itself or as a stepping stone to education reform.”

The younger Ms. Lee’s interest in education began at 17, when she read how poorly the U.S. educational system compared with other industrialized nations’.

“I became really outraged, because it seemed absurd to me that America — which had so many resources — would have such a horrible education system,” Ms. Lee says. One reason her parents had moved here, she says, was to give her and her sister a better education than they would have received in Korea.

Soon after, Ms. Lee volunteered for the local school board. In her senior year, she raised funds for a new school building and helped start a drug-prevention program and a peer-tutoring program. “It consumed me,” she says.

It continued after she arrived at Amherst in 1996. During her first summer vacation, she taught math, German and journalism to sixth graders in Cincinnati for Summerbridge, a program for at-risk students. “It was really incredible,” she says. “It was the first time that — no matter how tired I was — as soon as I stepped into the classroom, I felt totally revived.”

The following summer, she worked for Summerbridge again, this time in San Francisco. Then 20, she chaired the program’s foreign-language department — and started to make long-term career plans, brainstorming about the charter school she hoped to open after college.

“And after that charter school was successful, I planned to work with one particular city and help the city reform its entire educational structure,” she says.

Last fall, Ms. Lee began visiting charter schools; she also attended teaching and nonprofit job fairs. But only low-paying, low-impact jobs were presented to her, and she grew anxious that she would graduate jobless. So when big companies arrived on campus, she applied to three consulting firms — though she says she didn’t expect they would even choose to interview her.

But all three did. Ms. Lee says she “totally bombed” in the first two: “When they asked me why I wanted to be a consultant, I really didn’t have a good answer for them because I didn’t really want to be a consultant. I didn’t necessarily look down on it for other people, but I did for myself.”

In mid-December, she went to her third interview — this time with McKinsey. “I told them the truth,” she says: “that I didn’t really want to be a consultant, but I wanted to gain business experience so that I could go into nonprofit work and help the nonprofits where I think they really need help, which is in efficiency.”

Much to her surprise, the truth proved successful. She advanced in McKinsey’s interviewing process and before the month was out had a job offer. Though she kept going to nonprofit career fairs, in March she decided to accept it.

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