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Should You Work at a For-Profit or Non-Profit?: A Debate

A debate on whether to work for a company, nonprofit, or government.

This internal dialogue attempts to highlight the differences among the for- and non profit sectors. Of course, individual workplaces will vary.

Marty Nemko #1: I like for-profits’ efficiency but non-profits’ focus on the poor.

Marty Nemko #2:  If a for-profit makes a useful product at a fair price, doesn’t that do plenty good—even if it’s just better toilet paper?

Marty Nemko #1:  Most times the product isn’t significantly better;  it’s just marketed better. And what if the only job I get offered is for a mediocre product? Besides, I care to alleviate suffering more than to help the middle class.

Marty Nemko #2: But so much nonprofit money, including government, ends up doing no good, even Head Start, which for decades was touted as the inoculation against poverty. The Obama Administration, a big supporter of Head Start, commissioned a metaevaluation (a synthesis of evaluations) and found Head Start yields essentially zero net benefit. If you work for a for-profit—making or selling washing machines, Toyotas, iPhones, whatever, you’re likely to improve humankind more.

Marty Nemko #1:  But that mainly serves the middle class and the wealthy. They don’t need more help.

Marty Nemko #2: Sure they do. Don’t you need a toilet paper that won’t rip at the moment of truth? And you make the middle class sound like they’re The Bad Guys. On the contrary, most of the middle class and rich didn’t get that way by chance. Sure, some got there by inheritance, sleeping their way to the top, and so on, but most got there because they worked harder and stayed longer in school, were smarter and harder working in the workplace, and made a big enough contribution to their workplace and indirectly to society that employers were willing to pay them a middle-class wage. They earned their money. Is there anything wrong with giving them better products and services on which to spend the money they worked hard to earn?

Marty Nemko #1: There’s nothing wrong with it but it feels more worthy to help feed children in Zimbabwe than to flog some brand of dishwasher.

Marty Nemko #2: You have the right to make that choice but remember that many people who work in nonprofits go nuts at their inefficiency. For example, they rely on volunteers, which tend to be unreliable, and spend so much money on fundraising and administrative costs.

Marty Nemko #1:  More than for-profits do?

Marty Nemko #2:  I’d think so. In part, that’s because nonprofits are more likely to have decisionmaking be collaborative and even by consensus. That’s not only expensive but slows everything down and reduces most decisions to the lowest common denominator. Also, many capable, efficient people don’t want to work in a place where innovation occurs at molasses pace, where everyone’s job is secure even if their work is pretty bad, and you need three signatures to get to blow your nose.

Marty Nemko #1: Stop with the hyperbole. Don’t paint corporations as the model of efficiency. I’ve heard stories.

Marty Nemko #2: I’ve heard more stories about non-profit inefficiency, especially in the government. A caller to my radio program said that City of San Francisco carpenters don’t have enough to do so they build a fence, tear it down, and build it again, as slowly as possible. And if someone dares work faster or reports the laziness, the coworkers slit his tires or worse. And when I had to visit the plush federal building in Oakland, I passed desk after desk, each completely clean, with someone sitting there reading a magazine, polishing their nails, etc. Do I really want to work there?

Marty Nemko #1: There are plenty of horror stories in the for-profit sector. For example, I’ve heard of a number of people who had worked in a corporation for decades and a few months before they were eligible for a full pension, got dumped. And of course, today, corporations hire as many people as possible part-time/temp, and will dump even a long-term employee to send a job to India to save 50 cents.

Marty Nemko #2: Now you stop with the hyperbole. It is fact that for-profits have more money for IT, training, full benefits, and so on.

Marty Nemko #1: That’s only the big companies. Small companies and especially startups offer almost nothing, There’s plenty of money in the big-non-profits and especially government. They can always print more money or raise taxes. And they do.

Marty Nemko #2 We’re getting sidetracked.

Marty Nemko #1:  Job security is a huge advantage of most government jobs. You practically have to rob the taxpayer to lose your job.

Marty Nemko #2: And even then…

Marty Nemko #1:  Well, I think, for you, it’s clear. While someone else might be happier working for the government or a non-profit, I think you’d be happiest working for a large company. For one, they're less likely than a small company to do major dumpings but usually more efficient than government or a nonprofit. Sure, decisionmaking in a big company isn’t as fast as at a small one but the prestigious large companies employ lots of smart people, they have the infrastructure and dollars to make big things happen, and your heart seems to be with the middle class—that they’ve earned their way into the middle class and have the right to have products and services aimed designed for them.

Marty Nemko #1: You’re right. If there was good evidence that government or nonprofits really did help the poor, like close the achievement gap, okay. But there really isn’t enough proof of that beyond the super-publicized pilot projects that make it to 60 Minutes but rarely turn out to be enduring, let alone nationally scalable. If I work, for example, on the next iPhone, solar lighting, whatever, I know for sure that countless people—from the almost poor to the rich—will benefit. In contrast, if  I work to try to help Bangladesh, it’s hubristic of me to think I can make much difference---For generations, we’ve tried to help developing nations develop and they still seem mired, deeply mired.

Marty Nemko #1 and #2:  Hey, if I don’t like it, I can always start my own business. 

Wikipedia’s profile of Marty Nemko tells you more than necessary.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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