When you have a choice of paths to take, take the path with a heart.
– Yaqui Indian proverb
In Compassionate Careers: Making a Living by Making a Difference, Jeffrey W. Pryor and Alexandra Mitchell encourage young people to take "the path with a heart" when considering how they want to spend their lives. Filled with the stories of people who did just that, the book describes the joy and fulfillment — as well as some of the challenges — of a cause-focused career.
There is plenty of inspiration, and even humor, in the stories Pryor and Mitchell share. Who knew, for example, that the initial motivation for Jane Goodall to visit Africa was her love for Tarzan? Or that, as a young girl, Goodall was convinced she would make a better partner for the jungle swinger than his "wimpy" wife.
More typical is the story of Ana Dodson, a young woman who was adopted from Peru as an infant and raised in Colorado by her adoptive family. At the age of 11, Ana and her mother made plans to visit Hogar de Ninas, an orphanage outside of Cuzco, Peru. Thinking the children in the orphanage probably had no one to hug, Ana decided to collect books and stuffed animals for them and approached the local Rotary Club for help. Invited to speak at a club luncheon, she raised $700 on the spot — and received a standing ovation. That was the beginning of Peruvian Hearts, the organization Ana started to provide orphaned girls and young women in Peru with medical care, skills development, and computer training. "The girls at the orphanage were wearing clothes that were all torn. They were malnourished and had no education," Ana, now seventeen, says. "It hit me that I could have been living in that orphanage. That...could have been me. And I wanted to do something to help them."
Ivan Suvanjieff had a different journey. The creator of PeaceJam, he and his girlfriend (now wife), Dawn Engle, envisioned bringing Nobel Peace Prize-winners together with young people to create a movement for global peace and justice. They had one contact — the Dalai Lama, whom Dawn had met while working in Washington, D.C. Intrigued by their idea, the Dalai Lama agreed to participate — but only if the couple could get other Nobel laureates involved. With no connections to speak of, Suvanjieff and Engle did the one thing they could: they picked up the phone and began making calls. Almost twenty years later, PeaceJam offers programs to young people from kindergarten through college and has engaged more than a million youth participants, as well as thirteen Nobel laureates, in its cause.
Pryor and Mitchell's book is filled with stories like Ana's and Ivan's, stories marked by inspiration, passion, and serendipity. But it also makes a case for why a career in the nonprofit sector makes practical sense, starting with the fact that the number of nonprofits in the U.S. increased by almost 25 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the estimated 1.6 million tax-exempt nonprofits registered with the Internal Revenue Service employ some 13.7 million people, or nearly 10 percent of the nation's workforce. What's more, every day, for the next twenty years, roughly ten thousand baby boomers will hit retirement age, which means millennials, the biggest generation in American history, have a golden opportunity to introduce new ideas, work styles, and approaches to the way the nonprofit sector does its work.
And yet, as Mitchell and Pryor note, the sector isn't widely viewed by millennials as a long-term career option. Indeed, in a survey they conducted of twenty-five hundred nonprofit and foundation leaders, more than nine out of ten of respondents (96 percent) said that none of their teachers or counselors had ever suggested a career in the nonprofit sector, while fewer than 2 percent had found their nonprofit-sector job through a university career service. Yes, many young people are actively engaged in volunteer work, but Pryor and Mitchell worry that the connection for millennials between time spent volunteering and opting for a so-called compassionate career is tenuous.
Their concern may be a reflection, in part, of generational differences. For millennials, social change is no longer the exclusive purview of the nonprofit sector, while the authors themselves acknowledge that for-profit businesses increasingly are interested in triple-bottom-line strategies that take into account the well-being of people and the planet in addition to profits. Millennials eager to blur the boundaries between nonprofit and for-profit work are an increasingly important driver of that shift. However, the role of social enterprises, which can be structured as either a nonprofit or for-profit, is rather quickly glossed over by Pryor and Mitchell, and the book could benefit from more examples of passionate individuals who have successfully created organizations that seek — and achieve — both a profit and social impact.
That quibble aside, the larger question remains: How can we encourage millennials to choose compassionate careers and leverage their youth, energy, and idealism to drive social change? Pryor and Mitchell have some ideas, starting with improvements in how the sector recruits and nurtures young talent. For starters, they write, nonprofits should work harder to increase the diversity of their staffs. The sector also could benefit from an overarching recruitment message that underscores the many rewarding career paths available in the sector. Organizations such as the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network and Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy are doing good work in that regard and have raised the profile of the sector among young people, Pryor and Mitchell write, but their efforts alone are not enough.
To help readers navigate these challenges, Pryor and Mitchell support the kind of strategies that are necessary for career planning in any field — self-reflection, research, education, mentors, and networking — and provide a step-by-step guide to navigating a compassionate career, from exploring issue areas of interest and current skill sets to setting goals with the help of mentors and coaches and creating a plan of action.
But what resonates most for me in the book are the stories of those who have found a way to make a living by making a difference, including the adversity many have had to overcome, the difficult early moments in their careers, and the often serendipitous encounters that forever changed their lives. The authors may be correct in arguing that the nonprofit sector doesn't do enough to recruit young people to social change work, but in Compassionate Careers they have created a call to action likely to appeal to any young person with a heart as well as a brain.
Grace Sato is a research associate at Foundation Center.