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The Corporate Leap Into Not for Profit Land

Wednesday, 13th August 2014

In this latest Blog, Karen Mahlab reflects on recent approaches from talented people with extraordinary skills wanting to leap out of the corporate sector and into Not for Profit world. Her message is "look before you leap".

I am approached often with requests from talented people with extraordinary skills wanting to leap out of the corporate sector and into Not for Profit land.

It’s a magic land where things are not all about money. Where goodness and kindness and caring are valued. Where one's legacy can be measured in making a difference. Where all those skills one has spent years building in corporate world can be used for good. Where ones connections can be leveraged for-good. Where one can give back for all those years of good fortune that have brought you to the point of being able to leave the corporate world and still work – but work for less dollars.

There are many reasons people wish to make this transition and many of those who have done it have made an extraordinary contribution to the Not for Profit organisations they join or invent.

And I praise their motives as they are mine too.

It does, however, seem to me to be an absolute waste that they do not grab the bull by the horns and attempt to change their current workplace; the ones they have worked in for decades, the ones whose staff they know, whose boards they have been part of and whose mission they have created .. to run more like the Not for Profits they wish to join.

It's broadly accepted that the corporate sector needs some work. Leadership – with some exceptions –  is uninspiring. There is ongoing public outrage at executive salaries and what are seen as excessive profits. There is an increasing desire from Millennials and others to work for meaning as well as money – or at least to do no harm. There are numerous books, conferences, speakers and even CEOs calling out for a new ways of doing business.

And there are many things happening to address it. The B Corp movement – of which Pro Bono Australia is now proudly certified, the Conscious Capitalism movement, frameworks like Shared Value (from FSG) and others. New measures of success. New reporting initiatives. But most corporates are still on the margins and if the truth be told corporate social responsibility, if it exists in an organisation, is on the margins. The 2014 Australian Centre of Corporate Social Responsibility State of CSR Report supports this.

So the world needs change agents who sit on the inside of corporates to initiate and challenge the status quo. It needs the corporate ‘outliers’ to band together to shift culture, products and ways of doing business. They need to meet each other and form ‘songlines’ of a different story that percolates at all levels and departments.

I, too, once worked for of couple of large corporates many years ago. One was a global advertising agency and I was in charge of the Barbie Fan Club. When the agency lost two major clients they retrenched staff – and I was one of the first off. I suspect that the Barbie hanging by her neck from my office ceiling contributed. (My mother was one of the founders of the Women’s Movement in Australia). I was, however, then offered a part time position with the ‘Futures’ department in the agency. They were the definite ‘outliers’ and when I look back on it even then I had most in common with them. Our values were aligned and even though I didn’t take the job we are still in touch.

The account I loved working on at the agency was the one pro bono client we had: The Mental Health Research Institute. And working on it was an epiphany for me and crucial to my establishing Pro Bono Australia years later. Had I stayed at the agency perhaps I could have made a huge difference in the work I did.

So for all those out there in corporate land perhaps you should look before you leap – and I mean look at your own sector, at your own piece of country and see how you can change the world from there. Be bold. Be ‘fiery’ and maybe you’ll be fired. But you won’t die trying.

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Karen Mahlab AM
Karen Mahlab AM is the Founder and CEO of Pro Bono Australia. In 2015 she was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for her contribution to the Not for Profit sector and philanthropic initiatives.
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