This article originally appeared in The Tennessean.
One of my kid’s friends who’s about to graduate from college called me last week to ask for a bit of old man advice. (I don’t think of myself as old, but apparently college kids do.)
He told me that his dream was to become a successful businessperson, but he wasn’t sure how to get there.
It’s an interesting question. Learning business skills is not easy. And with so many paths to start on, choosing one can be daunting.
Some follow the academic path by going to business school and getting an MBA. Some spend years paying their dues, climbing step-by-step up the corporate ladder. And still others take the startup path diving in to the school of hard knocks.
But years ago, I learned about another pathway, one that’s less followed but equally as effective and perhaps more rewarding.
I was invited to serve on the board of directors of a local non-profit called the Nashville Business Incubation Center that helps minority business owners grow their companies.
Like many small nonprofits, NBIC was doing great work and having a major impact on the community. But also like most nonprofits, the work they were doing wasn’t easy.
At the first board meeting, NBIC’s CEO Angela Crane-Jones told me that NBIC had been around for decades and helped thousands of entrepreneurs realize their dreams. She said that for herself, it was the most rewarding job she’d ever had; but that doing everything from operations, to accounting, to marketing, to HR. It was also the most challenging job she’d ever had.
This sounded familiar to me.
Heading up a for-profit company, I’d experienced the same thing. Operating our company is fun and fulfilling, but its also a ton of work with lots of complexity, so Crane-Jones and I immediately hit it off.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate to get to know a few other nonprofit leaders around town. I’ve gotten to work closely with people like Lori Shinton, the CEO of Hands on Nashville, Greg O’Loughlin, head of The Educator’s Cooperative, and Richard Ripani, founder of the Nashville Jazz Youth Ensemble, all of whom have led their organizations to great heights.
Watching each of them work relentlessly to raise money, serve their clients, keep their boards and donors happy, manage staff, recruit volunteers, manage budgets, I’ve come to understand that working in nonprofit has many parallels to working in for-profit, but it’s much harder.
Just like for-profits, nonprofits must manage their resources to get a return on investment. Instead of measuring their returns in dollars, they grade themselves by the impact they have on their communities. They often have the same challenges for-profits do around operations, finance, and sales, but they have to solve them with lower budgets and often lower pay.
Those who work in non-profits often wear many hats. Since many are relatively small, every member of the team gets a chance to gain experience in nearly every aspect of the organization—something that is hard to find in the for-profit world.
So, it’s not an easy path. But especially if you’re just starting your career, taking a job at nonprofit is a sure fire-way to learn business skills fast.
But, there’s more…
Not only does the rigor of nonprofit teach you valuable business lessons—but it also gives work true meaning outside of financial rewards. And as many of us middle-aged and older people can tell you, finding meaning and purpose in a job is critical—it keeps you engaged and keeps you from ever getting burned out.
Gaining deep experience quickly and learning to find meaning in your work, all while helping others: that’s hard to beat.