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How The “I Quit My Corporate Job” Syndrome Creates Unwanted Stereotypes About The Social Sector

Posted on April 24, 2014 in Alternative Careers, Specials

By Saanya Gulati:

How often have you heard a sentence that starts with, ‘I quit my corporate job to…?’ Chances are that if you work in the social sector, especially at a non-governmental organisation (NGO), you hear it quite often.

Picture from Teach For India’s Facebook Page, photographed by Sunhil Sippy
Picture from Teach For India’s Facebook Page, photographed by Sunhil Sippy

As a strong believer in following one’s passion, I admire those who have the courage to give up the stability and comfort that corporate jobs provide and opt for less conventional career paths. Yet, I find that the ‘I sacrificed a life of luxury for something more fulfilling’ syndrome engenders certain stereotypes about jobs in the social sector, which can be problematic.

There is no doubt that working in the social sector is a fulfilling endeavor. Having worked at several NGOs, I can vouch for this. But newly transitioned corporates who attach blanket labels of ‘meaningful’ and ‘noble’ to all social sector jobs portray an overly romanticized description of what working in the social sector entails. This obscures the more nuanced reality, and oversimplifies the multitude of social sector jobs that exist.

For one, all NGOs do not work at the grass root level, and neither do all NGO employees work directly with underprivileged or marginalised communities. The impact of one’s work is not always tangible, and can often be administrative, mundane and repetitive. An article by Anurag Behar, CEO of Azim Premji Foundation called making the transition from the corporate to the social sector accurately depicts this distinction between working in an NGO that has a ‘direct impact on a few people’ versus one that attempts larger scale impact: “ In an organization that is attempting large scale change, one doesn’t see [their efforts making some difference on a daily basis], and so such people over a period of time start feeling, ‘did I leave that life to come here and work in another large organization?”

When I told people that I worked at a non-profit, their instinctive response was, “your job must be so fulfilling!” It often comes as a shock when I tell them that it was not. Yes, the overarching mission of an NGO is different from that of a corporate firm, but the manner in which both organisations function on a day-to-day basis is quite similar. Consider someone who does marketing at an NGO or for a corporate firm. Both jobs involve raising awareness about your organisation’s work, and the skills required, methods used and processes followed are not fundamentally different.

Placing NGOs on a moral pedestal can create two misconceptions about working in the social sector. The first is the impression that all those who work in the social sector are a bunch of large-hearted Samaritans. And the logical corollary is that those in the corporate world as soul-sucking suit clad, money making machines. The second and more problematic is that working in the social sector is not a ‘real job’ but a vocation, passion, or an ideal ‘second career (once you’re fed-up of your corporate job, that is!) People often have questions like ‘why I chose to work in the NGO sector?’ or ‘what I plan to do after?’ The assumption is that working in the social sector is obviously not a viable or long-term career. If you need more clarification on why we need to treat NGO work as a real job, here is a great piece.

The ‘I quit my corporate job’ fad creates unwanted stereotypes about working in the non-profit sector. If we can start to view both jobs on an equal footing, we will realise that working in an NGO can be as mundane as working in the corporate firm can be gratifying, because at the end of the day they are both jobs. Those who brag about their corporate-social transition will realise that changing career paths neither accords you an elevated moral status, nor guarantees that your new job will be a noble and fulfilling mission. The ‘I quit my corporate job’ will be ‘I changed my career path.’ Most importantly, we will stop questioning those who chose to work in the social sector at the start of their career, and realise that this decision is not purely based on goodwill or altruism, but because they enjoy their jobs.