Working in a non-governmental organization (NGO) has always been the escape option of the corporate sardine. The facts, we thought, were clear—corporate life was demanding, soul stifling and at the end of the day, meaningless. NGO work was fulfilling, and every day would be a reward in making someone’s life better.
Malti Sachdev, 38, thought this too. She had spent a decade working in the healthcare industry. She was successful and settled. Yet somewhere along the way she realized her desire to do something more meaningful had become a force she could not ignore any longer. Providentially, it seemed, her former boss joined an NGO and was looking for people with a corporate sense of discipline and accountability. Sachdev jumped at the opportunity. It was a prestigious project and an opportunity to marry her professional experience with her desire to do good, and she didn’t even have to take a pay cut.
The nine-to-five regimen: The NGO world did not sweep Sachdev off her feet. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
But reality soon proved contrary. “I expected to be inspired by my colleagues and thought their passion would sweep me off my feet. But once there, I realized that for most people this was just another nine-to-five job. Activities went on for years without anything coming out of it,” she says.
Less than a year after she made what she thought was the best career decision of her life, she was back in a corporate job, in a familiar world of tasks, targets and tangible accomplishments. And Sachdev is not alone in treading this path from an NGO back to the corporate world.
The reasons are varied: For one, the social sector landscape has changed. Some companies are going beyond the rhetoric and getting serious about community development. People who switched to NGOs dreaming of getting their hands dirty and doing “actual” development work realize that their skill sets are used in exactly the same way there as it was in a corporate job. And sometimes it’s a nightmare adapting to another way of working.
Will I, won’t I (have a job)?
If Sachdev’s is a story of working in an NGO so flush with funds that nobody felt any need to justify their poor performance, Sachetan Gharat’s experience falls on the other end of the spectrum. Earlier this year, after six years of working in NGOs, he switched to a real estate company.
Gharat, 29, was frustrated by the instability of an NGO employee’s job, being hired on contracts for each project. “Projects change constantly,” he says, “Sometimes if the funding on the project runs out, you are left without a job even though you are on contract for two years.” He also blames the inability of some NGOs to pay well on the fact that they are run inefficiently.
Insider’s view: Gharat feels NGO employees are overworked and underpaid. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
He now looks after the welfare of the construction staff at his employers’ building sites, and of communities around them, providing for their healthcare and education facilities for their children. “In a corporate they understand that people have different capacities and skill sets. This is a far more efficient way of working than having one person do everything—NGOs are too much work and too little pay,” he says.
While Gharat is not entirely ruling out a return to the social sector, he is clear that it will have to wait until these problems of financial security and organizational stability are solved. “I feel bad that I have compromised on some of my ideals, but I don’t want to get caught in the same dilemma again,” he says.
It’s a big world
Thomas Robin is young. At 25, he has had two years of NGO and one year of corporate experience behind him. He is a bit of a dreamer, a musician and has been a do-gooder “forever”. But even in his short stint in both sectors, he realizes that the scope of opportunity in development may have shifted from NGOs to companies.
Do-gooder: Robin works on a project that trains the underprivileged. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Fresh out of college, Robin joined an NGO and looked after a programme called Youth for Change, where he conducted workshops and training programmes for college students, making them aware of issues on violence and gender. He dug into his musical interest and launched an alternate music programme for the NGO—composing and recording revolutionary songs to inspire and spread his message. He liked what he did but, he says, convincing college students to participate in the programme was difficult.
When he was offered a job in a large retail company in their corporate sustainability division, Robin realized this was not only an opportunity that would be larger in scope and reach, but also one that would translate directly in changing people’s lives.
Robin now works with underprivileged youth and trains them, so that they can find jobs. “Here, people see the direct benefits of undergoing our training programmes because they know it will help them find jobs,” he says.
Robin is also thrilled at what this means for his own exposure and experience. He has suggested programmes, presented them to his seniors and been given permission to run them. His responsibilities are high and the experience is unparalleled, he says.
The other side of the coin
Ranu Kulshrestha, 35, was a “hard core” NGO type, by her own admission. She started her career in an NGO at the grass-roots level and worked her way up and across organizations, including large bilateral agencies such as the United Nations. That experience was fulfilling enough to keep her commitment to her ideals, but also long enough for her to realize that there were other approaches to the same problem. “I realized that it is wrong to say that NGOs and corporates work at cross purposes. If a company has set up a corporate social responsibility (CSR) cell for the right reasons, then there is a lot they can do,” she says. When Kulshrestha was offered the position to head Moser Baer’s CSR division, she saw it as an opportunity to work on the other side of the fence.
Changing tack: Kulshrestha says firms can do a lot with corporate social responsibility programmes. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Her experience in a corporate job has been great so far, she says. “In the last year, we have managed to completely change the outlook and results of Moser Baer’s CSR initiatives. I feel that the one thing which worked to my advantage was my exposure to both these worlds,” she says.
Kulshrestha was not entirely sure that her corporate stint would work so well when she accepted the offer. Her husband and their friends, most of whom work in rights-based organizations that have thrown out companies and special economic zones (SEZs), accused her of selling out to the “other side”. Dinner table arguments are still long and loud, but they have, finally, come around to seeing her point of view.
In that, perhaps, lies the key to this reverse phenomenon of NGO staffers moving to corporate jobs. The awareness that this was not a competition and that the way forward is a partnership between NGOs and companies—that they should distrust each other a little less, and listen to each other a little more.