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What About Working for Nonprofits?

"You're going to do what?" Mimi's manager practically shouted at her. The 42-year-old brand manager told him she had accepted a job as an associate director of an agency that serves inner-city children. It would pay about half her current salary. "Have you lost your mind?"

"Not at all," Mimi assured him. "In fact, I've really just found my mind, as well as a lot more that's been missing in my work for a long time."

An increasing number of people are leaving the cohort that Utne Reader identified as a "stressed-out nation of wage slaves" to find more personal meaning in their work and a lifestyle that allows for balance rather than constant adrenaline rushes. Interestingly, nonprofits need every functional area in the business world, too. So there's no need to stop doing what you know to hook up with an organization that squares with your values and passions.

But how do you begin to think about such a change? Here's a simple brainstorming exercise. On a piece of paper or with a word-processing program, create the following two lists side by side: "Functions I Can Perform" and "Passions/Hot Interests."

Take some time with this exercise, making both lists as long as you can. Then put them away for several days. When you come back to them, rank the items on both lists in terms of enjoyment and importance to you.

To illustrate, let's examine the top five Mimi put on her lists:

Functions: Passions:
Persuade people Kids
Write good proposals Families
Work effectively with a team Outdoor activities
Make strong relationships and maintain them Making a difference
Try new things People who care about social issues

Does that sound more like a brand manager for a food company or a leader in a nonprofit organization charged with bringing new life to an old, stodgy agency?

Furthermore, it's much easier to swim from this side of the river to the other -- from business to nonprofits -- than vice versa. So if you're seeking meaning in your life, consider the over-the-counter medication inherent in the nonprofit world. These Web resources can help you sample what's available:

The best career exploration tool is networking. Start building a list of friends, friends of friends, family, college alumni and the like. In short, start talking to people about what it's like to work for nonprofits. You'll find some of the same problems you find in business (people are people, after all), but you'll also find individuals who are sustained by doing work they really believe in. That might go a long way for you, too.

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