Careers in the Non-Profit Sector

by guest blogger Joshua Harrower

I had the pleasure of attending the first of the Voices of Experience career panels in late September. The focus of that evening was careers in the Third Sector, AKA non-profit sector. Some choose the language of ‘third’ as they do not wish their careers to be labeled as a ‘non-‘ or a ‘not-‘ anything. But I digress.

Have you had an experience running up against some form of injustice that you personally felt? If so, you have that in common with all of the presenters at this particular career discussion.

The panel featured Jusep Sim, Notisha Massaquoi, Teriano Lesancha and Kimberly Gibbons.

Jusep dove right into the topic by recounting his career move away from insurance and toward fundraising, after a profoundly impactful trip to Uganda that had him interacting with children with HIV/AIDS. He sees his main strength as sales and so re-oriented that first by working for an international non-governmental organization (INGO, in third sector parlance), and now for students with needs at U of T. In Jusep’s view, the moments are few and far between when you get to see positive change in someone’s life through third sector work; but such direct opportunities are just not available at all in the corporate sector.

Like Jusep, Notisha Massaquoi had a formative life experience that guided her interest toward her chosen field: she was a member of the first black family to move to a tiny fishing village in late 1960s Newfoundland. The community had not anticipated a black family’s arrival and was, unfortunately, “not ready to receive” them, as Notisha put it. From this experience, she wanted to help newcomers.

With an early career in health sciences, she was not finding what she wanted in front line work; she returned to school to research organizational development as it relates to healthcare delivery and education for racialized and/or marginalized communities in Canada. She learned that any person who tells you “No, you can’t do it” is a person uninterested in your success and best not minded – because, of course, you can do anything if you want it enough. That said, she advised finding a mentor who will tell you how difficult a career in the third sector can be.

Notisha’s ongoing PhD studies are guided by a goal of teaching service providers how to do things differently for otherwise marginalized clients so that they are the ‘stars,’ and not a ‘sideshow’ wherein further marginalization takes place right when they are vulnerable and asking for assistance. Women’s Hands Community Health Centre, where Notisha is Executive Director, models best practices in serving a marginalized client base – and she reports that it still feels great to be there after 18 years.

Again with the evening’s third speaker, Teriano, it was a deeply personal experience that influenced her enormous drive toward her chosen career. She is a young woman from a Kenyan Maasai village. Teriano reported that the Maasai culture is very male dominated, where girls are wed in arranged marriages. Teriano has the goal of helping these Maasai girls become educated and self-determining.

Non profit sector Voices of Experience

With the guidance of a mentor, she successfully created the Supa Maasai Foundation, which has the strategy to fund “girls” boarding school capital and operating expenditures. Actually, Teriano said the girls go to a mixed boarding school – 60 percent girls, 40 percent boys – which is socially acceptable to her community compared with “just” educating girls. Teriano has had to come up with a hundred clever workarounds like this to see her vision bear fruit.

Kimberly is the Executive Director of the Ontario Council for International Cooperation. Her backstory includes being a “military brat”, which comes with moving between overseas bases A LOT. She was exposed to Cold War politics up close, living in Berlin as a youngster, and viewed an undue amount of deference to (military) hierarchy. Perhaps in reaction to that hierarchy, and in pursuit of her own self-discovery, Kimberly found that she has generally worked toward facilitating programs in grassroots spaces.

Advice she would give to those of us undecided on our career paths: always be open to dialogue; find a work setting that amplifies your sense of self; find ways to engage with the world in solidarity, not through opposition.

On the practical side, Kimberly pointed out that in applying for third sector jobs, those applying straight out of school are competing against people coming from downsized corporations, people who are changing career paths, i.e. people with work experience – so it’s not enough to show up and say “I’m a good person, hire me!” Further advice:

  1. If you know which sector you would like to be in, all sectors have social events at which to network – take up these opportunities.
  2. If you know which specific organization you want to work at, volunteer for it.
  3. Volunteer for high level functional positions that are related to your degree, be it finance, law, governance, fundraising – and be committed to it.
  4. You must be able to elaborate on every line of your résumé.
  5. Be authentic; be true to yourself.
  6. If you get an interview at her organization, you are one of the five out of 300 applicants – so, do your homework on the organization. (Don’t ask questions that the answer to which can be found on their website.)

WHOA! As you can read, I got a ton of good information out of this 90+ minute event, even before the networking portion of the evening began. Obviously, the Career Centre will have connections to a broader range of sectors than you or I on our own, but also maybe even deeper than you or I in any one field. For me, the event was extremely worthwhile for the couple hours of my time.

Find the schedule and upcoming events for the Voices of Experience panels, and share your career stories with @RyersonCareer.