I am fortunate to work closely with my undergraduate alumnae association.  When I did my undergraduate work Douglass College, a division of Rutgers University, was all women, serving as the sister school to Rutgers College, then all men.  Rutgers College admitted women in1972, my sophomore year, but Douglass remained a degree-granting, single-gender school until 2007.  Now it’s been renamed as Douglass Residential College but it remains focused on programs and services dedicated to women and women’s education.

I am the head of an alumnae-mentoring program (alumna to alumna) and, along with my work as an executive coach, I come in contact with many young millennial women.  I get it that my sample is skewed.  However, I am fascinated with how many of these young women, often in their first job, often searching for their career, describe to me that they want to “help people.”

How do we think about helping people?  A recent article published in Medium by Alex Mathers was entitled “ Why Your Main Mission Must Be Shamelessly Selfish.”  In it he argues that, in order to make a difference in the world we should strive to become exceptional at something.  Mathers states, “If we persist in being helpful at the expense of improving our own skills, we are doing ourselves and others a disservice…Like on a plane, when you’re told to take the oxygen yourself before helping others, you do the same in life.”

Recently I was coaching a very smart young woman who, hating the place she worked, couldn’t decide if her next move should be law school or an advanced degree in public policy and wanted my counsel.  I wanted to focus on why she hated the place she worked.  It was a nonprofit organization that provided professional support for those in need.  Since she had a limited skill set she served in an administrative capacity and she couldn’t believe how the boss sometimes spoke to her – and others!

While I am sure that her boss could have used some management skills training, her expectations about how people who want to help others behave within their organizations were wildly unrealistic.

There are approximately 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S. in 2017 (U.S. Urban Institute) in a broad array of categories:

·     35% Human Services

·     17% Education

·     13% Health, hospitals and primary care

·     12% Public and social benefit

·     10% Arts, culture and humanities

·       6% Religious

·       5% Environment and animals

·       2% Other

Nonprofit organizations and the helping professions are disproportionally female. Looking at one such profession more closely – social work – we find that more than 80% of social workers are women and among those under 34 years of age, more than 90% are women.  Yet females are more dissatisfied with their social work jobs and paid less than their male counterparts.

Other types of nonprofits show similar patterns:  a largely female staff until you get to the upper echelon, where males are more likely to hold more of the senior positions.  A recent analysis suggested that men hold 79% of the CEO positions in nonprofit organizations with $25million+ in assets.

I asked my young Padawan if she had considered any paths in the profit sector and at least she had the grace to say “No offense but..” before she told me that she held a stereotype about people who work for  profit-making companies as being too focused on making money and greed and not caring about people.

Wow!  Unfortunately it has been my experience that this young woman is not an outlier and her attitudes are more prevalent than I imagined. Among those young professionals who see “helping” as their mission, few seem to appreciate that, although collaboration and the mission can be strong in nonprofit organizations, other areas can be lacking. Generally, for-profit organizations are better able to invest resources in training, compensation and education.

Plus there are many ways to help people when you are in a leadership position in a for-profit company.   I told her how I felt I “helped” people by running a company with policies in place that were family-friendly, resulting in a woman sending me a photo of her son’s high school graduation a few years after I had resigned and telling me that she was able to be a good employee and be the kind of mother that she wanted to be because of how I ran the company.  I told her about systematically reviewing pay discrepancies by gender and putting corrections into place.  I told her how our company had volunteer days allowing employees to use work time to do something for a cause and bringing people together.  I didn’t get around to talking about the checks that my salary allowed me to write for causes that were near and dear to me.  I didn’t even get close to talking about Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation!

Please know that I am not showing disrespect for the many nonprofit organizations that make a real difference in people’s lives.  But all organizations have imperfect executives, potential systematic discrimination and bias; all offer some types of work that are boring and mindless.  Go into these organizations with eyes wide open, committed to helping the culture evolve.  If you want to “help people” there are many ways of doing so.  Be open to possibilities in unlikely places. Our kindly founder used to tell me that “we could do good by doing well” and it took me a while to understand the full range of what he meant.


Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. ~Leo Tolstoy



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